-- One month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a poll showed that 92 percent of Americans approved of how President Bush was handling terrorism. Almost two years later, after the surrender of Baghdad, that number still stood at 79 percent.
The speakers who opened the Republican National Convention on Monday night -- led by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani -- launched a concerted effort to convince Americans that what they thought of Bush then remains the way they should think of him now.
The evening was replete with unabashed efforts to invoke the emotional trauma of New York's Sept. 11 catastrophe on behalf of the Republican campaign. The aim was to restore the luster of Bush's credentials on national security despite the scuffs these have taken from the problems of the Iraq occupation and handover. It was the political equivalent of reintroducing a famous consumer brand after a season of controversies. In Bush's case, this meant trying to revive public appreciation for what had been his core assets: a reputation for strength and steadfastness against adversaries, even in the face of setbacks.
Convention stagers put little stock in subtlety. In addition to Giuliani, the partisans heard from the city's former police chief, two widows of people who died on Sept. 11, as well as all manner of tributes to the firefighters, doomed airline passengers and other heroes of the terrorist attacks. The message, sometimes unstated and sometimes explicit, was that Bush's presidency has itself been a story of rising to meet the demands of a terrible moment.
About 60 percent of Americans in a new Washington Post/ABC poll approved of Bush's handling of terrorism, and in recent months that number has dipped as low as 50 percent -- potentially providing an opening to Democrat John F. Kerry on what both candidates say is the preeminent issue in this year's race. The anomaly confronting Bush this year is that he is seen as comparatively effective on terrorism, but he has been dragged down by events in Iraq. The message from the podium here was to limit the Iraq damage by demonstrating Bush has been equally vigilant toward both problems.
Combined with Giuliani's mockery of Kerry as an inveterate flip-flopper, the evening's larger argument was that the country is safer with a president who may err through forceful action than with one who allows threats to build through timidity.
"We must learn from our mistakes, improve on our successes, and vanquish this unpardonable enemy," McCain said in a prime-time speech.
The message came wrapped in emotion-laden recollections of Bush's performance after the airborne assault that leveled the twin towers, which once stood just a few miles from the Madison Square Garden convention hall. There were numerous efforts to link -- at least rhetorically -- Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network and deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as like-minded enemies in what McCain called "a big thing, this war . . . a fight between right and wrong, good and evil."
Although some Republican strategists said the party needs to be alert to the dangers of seeming to exploit Sept. 11 for political purposes, this risk plainly did not weigh heavily on the city's former mayor.
He recalled grabbing the arm of then-police commissioner Bernard Kerik in the days after the attacks, when Bush visited the stricken city, and exclaiming, "Thank God George Bush is our president."
To a roar of applause from the assembled partisans, he added, "I say it again tonight. . . . Thank God George Bush is our president." Turning expressly partisan, Giuliani said the terrorism threat is a reason to vote Republican.
"I don't believe that we're right about everything and Democrats are wrong," he said. "Neither party has a monopoly on virtue. . . . But I do believe there are times in our history when our ideas are more necessary and more important and critical, and this is one of those times when we are facing war and danger."
If Sept. 11 and its aftermath remain the strongest political card in Bush's security record, both polling and the opening-night speeches were a reminder that the Iraq invasion and its troubled aftermath are the opposite.
McCain devoted a substantial part of his address to defending the decision to dislodge Hussein through force. Two pillars of Bush's case for war -- that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that there were important links between Hussein's government and al Qaeda -- have not been supported by evidence since the war's end.
But, McCain said, "Those who criticize that decision would have us believe that the choice was between a status quo that was well enough left alone and war.
"But there was no status quo to be left alone," he said. A 12-year-old containment policy was failing, and many nations "had decided the time had come again to do business with Saddam," McCain argued. He added that if Hussein remained in power indefinitely the dictator would have had time to gain weapons of mass destruction.
Bush's choice, he said, "was between war and a graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise -- not our critics abroad, not our political opponents."
Nonetheless, several Republicans have said the political baggage Bush is carrying from Iraq has affected his popularity enough that he has little choice but to portray Kerry as an unacceptable alternative. Among those who argued that was Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) , who introduced McCain.
"These are just the times that you live in. I could say he's going to be on Mount Rushmore, I mean he might be in his second term, but you'd have to be crazy and not know that some of the problems in the war are affecting us in South Carolina," Graham told Washington Post reporters and editors earlier in the day. "I've got some Republicans who are uneasy about the war."
Bush, he said, needs to convince voters that Kerry is not qualified by ideology or leadership traits to be commander in chief during an age of terrorism.
Monday evening, it was Giuliani who made this case, with obvious relish.
"President Bush sees world terrorism for the evil that it is," he said. "John Kerry has no such clear, precise and consistent vision."
Giuliani said he intended no personal criticism of Kerry, but he hurled his invective with the sting of a native New Yorker. He noted that Kerry had voted against the Persian Gulf War in 1991 but claimed he later said he supported the action. And he noted that Kerry voted to authorize force against Iraq in 2002, but this year voted against Bush's $87 billion funding request to support the occupation.
"He even at one point declared himself an antiwar candidate. Now he says he's a pro-war candidate," Giuliani said. "At this rate, with 64 days left, he still has time to change his position at least four or five more times."
Like Bush, Giuliani's reputation soared after the Sept. 11 attacks. Were it not for his association with that event, Giuliani would hardly be a welcome figure to be addressing a Republican convention. He supports abortion rights and gay rights, both positions anathema to the culturally conservative delegates who dominate this convention.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who supports Bush even though he has been critical of the administration on Iraq and other issues, said he thinks the convention can cite Sept. 11 without inappropriately politicizing national tragedy. "The president's leadership and how he has handled the responsibilities as president since that time are a big part of this campaign," he told Post reporters and editors.
"You can question whether he is using that event as a political prop, and that's a fair question, but at the same time, I think it is fair and accurate to say that it is part of the last four years and a dramatic part -- and I think that reason itself is probably as good as an argument as any as to why they came here."
Alert listeners heard McCain seem to answer former president Bill Clinton, who at the Democratic convention in Boston chided Bush by saying, "Strength and wisdom are not opposing values." Arguing that there was no avoiding the war on terrorism, McCain said, "We tried that once and our reluctance cost us dearly."
Conventioneers leapt to their feet to applaud that apparent reference to Clinton's record on terrorism. McCain said it made no sense to value smooth diplomacy over security, adding: "That's not just an expression of our strength. It's a measure of our wisdom."