-- When President Bush described himself as a "compassionate conservative" in his first run for the White House, his political objective was to put an appealing face on a Republican Party whose image had suffered from the hard-edged conservatism of its rambunctious congressional wing.
On Tuesday night, as the Republican National Convention focused on themes of compassion without ever straying far from the president's leadership in the war on terrorism, Bush's advisers had another goal in mind: to put a more human face on a wartime president portrayed by opponents, including challenger John F. Kerry, as stubborn, reckless and insensitive.
That shift speaks volumes about what has happened to Bush during his first four years in office, as both he and his presidency have been redefined by two wars, a sluggish economy, and economic and domestic policies that have left many Americans wondering whether he is the man he claimed to be when elected in 2000.
On Monday night, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) offered testimony to the president's toughness and resolve. Bush's advisers believe his leadership on fighting terrorism since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, holds the key to his reelection. But they also know his often grim wartime persona has obscured what they consider one of his most attractive characteristics: a generally buoyant, wisecracking personality that helped soften the edges of his conservative policy proposals.
There may be no going all the way back to the George W. Bush of 2000, given what has happened on his watch. Tuesday's major speeches -- those aired by the major broadcast networks -- barely reprised the "compassionate conservative" agenda that was at the heart of that campaign but has been largely subsumed by a focus on terrorism.
War, terrorism and national security now form the core priorities of Bush's presidency, and it was first lady Laura Bush's role to tell the country that although her husband may be tough and resolute, he is neither indifferent nor uncaring as he has led the country into war. If war has transformed his presidency, she was there to offer testimony that it has not fundamentally changed Bush. He is, she said, the same man she met many years ago at a backyard barbecue in Midland, Tex.
The first lady spoke of quiet nights at the dinner table on the road to war, of overheard conversations with foreign leaders and of watching her husband from a White House window as he walked across the White House lawn, agonizing. "He's a loving man with a big heart," the first lady said in remarks prepared for delivery. "I've seen tears as he has hugged families who've lost loved ones. I've seen him return the salute of soldiers wounded in battle."
The president has regularly turned to his wife in this campaign to soften the edges of his presidency. She appeared in the first ad of the campaign. She has crisscrossed the country on his behalf, and when the campaign put up a new ad recently about the war on terrorism, she was once again at his side on the screen as he talked about the anguish of parents worrying about their children on the day America was attacked almost three years ago. She has helped to provide what he often cannot.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger provided affirmation of a different sort for a president who has relentlessly courted his party's conservative base. The party's newest star is at odds with the president and that conservative base on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, but he vouched for Bush as the leader who has helped make the party open to those who don't always agree with its dominant wing.
"Maybe, just maybe, you don't agree with this party on every single issue," he said, reaching out to Americans who may have qualms about some of the GOP's positions. "I say to you tonight, I believe that's not only okay, that's what's great about this country. Here we can respectfully disagree and still be patriotic, still be American and still be good Republicans."
Before Tuesday's evening session, Bush advisers explained why they had made compassion the theme of the second night of the convention, rather than the economy, which they and Kerry strategists both say is an issue at least as important than terrorism and Iraq in the election. They said they believed it was important to highlight some character traits and domestic policies of the president that had been forgotten.
"Obviously, the attacks of September 11 changed the nature of this presidency overnight," said Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. "I've said before the president is seen often in settings that don't remind us of [that] he's not just a good president, he's a good guy, and it helps to remind people of that sometimes. . . . I think it is important to reinforce that element of his personality and also that aspect of his agenda."
Bush campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish said the president feels compelled to talk about the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism, on the campaign trail and elsewhere -- and as a result Americans may have lost sight of what else he has tried to do.
"They might not have fresh in their minds some of the elements of the compassion agenda," she said. "It's been crowded and probably eclipsed. . . . It [war] has made the compassionate agenda, the domestic agenda, something that people have not focused on."
Bush's critics suggest that Iraq and the war on terrorism are only part of the reason Bush's image as a compassionate conservatism may need a remake. They argue, in the words of Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, that "conservatism dwarfed compassion."
Reed contended that Bush used compassionate conservatism in 2000 to suggest he was no disciple of former House speaker Newt Gingrich's brand of Republicanism but that once in office he showed his true colors -- and is paying the price in his reelection campaign. "It's no surprise that they're bringing 'compassionate' out of its undisclosed secure location for the convention," he said, "but it's not clear what it means anymore."
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also taken their toll on that compassionate-conservative agenda, but so, too, have some of Bush's domestic priorities. Bush's compassion agenda included education accountability, and the No Child Left Behind legislation was approved early in his first term. But that has become embroiled in debate over funding and regulations.
Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige said Tuesday that Bush "always had a compassionate vision for education," but the president has talked far less about that subject in this campaign than last and has barely outlined the next chapter in his education agenda.
His tax cuts, which have been generous to the wealthiest Americans, have caused many to question whether his compassion extends to those closer to the bottom of the economic ladder, according to Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. "They look at many policies, especially his tax cut, as something that really isn't designed for them," he said.
Public impressions of Bush's compassion in his approach to governing have ebbed and flowed throughout his four years in office, reaching their peak in early 2002 as he remained in the glow of support after the Sept. 11 attacks. Now, only four in 10 Americans say they believe he has governed compassionately, according to a NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. If the public began with optimism, if not certainty, about his compassionate conservatism, much of that seems to have dissipated.
Tuesday's convention program reinforced the reality that Bush's political future is tethered significantly to terrorism, Iraq and national security. But if his compassionate-conservative agenda occupies a less prominent role in his governing agenda, his advisers know the political benefits, particularly among swing voters, of reminding people of what they found appealing about his candidacy four years ago.
Advisers believe that the more Bush is on the campaign trail, the more that will shine through, but whether this wartime president can do that -- even with the kind of familial and political support he received from his wife, his daughters and others on Tuesday -- is an unanswered question.