The theme of the Republican convention on Wednesday night, as on the previous two nights, was unmistakable: Be afraid of terrorists, and be very afraid of John F. Kerry's ability to fight the terrorists.
On a day when the official theme was economic opportunity, Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.), the keynote speaker, made no mention of the economy. Instead, he delivered a derisive indictment of the Democratic presidential nominee, saying Kerry would arm the military with "spitballs" and "outsource our national security" to Paris. Miller, a disaffected Democrat, said that Kerry's words "encourage our enemies" and that Democratic leaders are "motivated more by partisan politics than by national security."
Vice President Cheney, in his speech Wednesday night, devoted fewer than 100 of his nearly 2,700 words to the economy, instead launching an extended attack on Kerry's ability to fight terrorists. Saying Kerry wants to show al Qaeda "our softer side," Cheney asserted that "a strong and purposeful America is vital to preserving freedom and keeping us safe -- yet time and again Senator Kerry has made the wrong call on national security."
It is no coincidence that each prime-time speech this week, whatever the stated theme, has turned to national security. With the economy showing signs of a summer swoon, the president's campaign is betting his surest route to reelection is by keeping the focus on terrorism -- and by convincing Americans that a President Kerry could not keep them safe.
This week's Washington Post-ABC News poll shows why. A majority of Americans disapprove of President Bush's handling of the economy, but 60 percent of the country continues to give him high marks in the struggle against terrorism. By 56 percent to 38 percent, Americans trust Bush more than Kerry to fight terrorism -- Bush's strongest issue in the poll.
Even given the political imperative, the convention's focus on terrorism -- and the charge that Kerry is ill-equipped to combat it -- has been intense. The party has gone through three hours of prime-time speeches with barely a mention of the economy, passing reference to domestic policies, and no specific discussion of Bush's agenda for a second term. While the Post poll found public discontent with Bush's handling of Iraq, convention speakers have discussed Iraq as a part of the more popular "war on terrorism."
Republicans say the emphasis is inevitable because of Americans' interest in security since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "It's hard to make something other than security the main issue of this campaign," said former GOP congressman Vin Weber (Minn.), an adviser to the Bush campaign. "We have all been preoccupied with the national security issue."
Democrats, naturally, suspect a more sinister motive. "He's just not going to fool swing voters and moderates a second time" with talk about economic opportunity and compassion," said Jim Jordan, Kerry's former campaign manager who is advising an anti-Bush advertising effort. "The better bet, and they know it, is to keep up the John Wayne act."
The emphasis on terrorism is likely to continue on the convention's final night Thursday. While Bush's acceptance speech will outline his agenda for Social Security, taxes and health care, advisers say he, too, will heavily emphasize the terrorism issue. "You have to talk about your record to give credibility to your vision," explained Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's top strategist.
Both Cheney and Miller attested to Bush's record, with the Georgian saying, "He's the same man on Saturday night that he is on Sunday morning." But their most spirited remarks -- about 40 percent of each speech -- were their contemptuous assessments of Kerry's ability to serve as commander in chief.
"For more than 20 years, on every one of the great issues of freedom and security, John Kerry has been more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure," Miller charged in an angry and fiery delivery. Three years ago, Miller described Kerry as an "authentic hero" and a "good friend," adding that Kerry "has worked to strengthen our military."
Miller and Cheney reached deep into Kerry's past to present him as a danger to Americans' security -- at times mischaracterizing the Democrat's positions in the process. "Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations," Miller said. Cheney, in turn, said Kerry "began his political career by saying he would like to see our troops deployed 'only at the directive of the United Nations.' " The vice president said, "Kerry denounces American action when other countries don't approve -- as if the whole object of our foreign policy were to please a few persistent critics."
Both men apparently were referring to a 1970 interview Kerry gave to the Harvard Crimson. In his speech accepting his party's nomination in July, Kerry said: "I will never give any nation or any institution a veto over our national security."
Miller portrayed Kerry as "an auctioneer selling off our national security." He recited a long list of weapons systems he said Kerry opposed. Miller's list was mostly derived from a single Kerry vote against a spending bill in 1991, rather than individual votes against particular systems. The bill was also opposed by five Republican senators at the time, and Cheney, who was defense secretary then, was demanding even deeper cuts in defense spending by Congress.
As Bush has often done, both speakers also condemned a vote Kerry cast against Bush's request for $87 billion for military and reconstruction spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cheney said Kerry "does not seem to understand the first obligation of a commander in chief -- and that is to support American troops in combat."
Kerry voted for an alternative version of the bill that would have funded some of the spending by raising taxes on incomes greater than $312,000. For his part, Bush had vowed to veto a version of the bill that passed that would have converted half of the Iraq rebuilding plan into a loan.
Miller also angrily denounced Kerry for saying the United States is occupying Iraq. "Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today's Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator," he said, later adding: "No one should dare to even think about being the commander in chief of this country if he doesn't believe with all his heart that our soldiers are liberators abroad and defenders of freedom at home."
It was not immediately clear what Miller was referring to, although Bush himself has spoken of Iraq as being "occupied."
Other major issues -- the economy and the Iraq war -- were described in the context of the Sept. 11 attacks and the campaign against terrorists. Cheney said the attacks "hit our economy very hard." And Bush, he said, "gets up each and every day determined to keep our great nation safe so that generations to come will know the freedom and opportunities we have known -- and more."
On the Iraq war, similarly, Cheney discussed the ouster of Saddam Hussein along with the war in Afghanistan as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks. "From the beginning, the president made clear that the terrorists would be dealt with -- and that anyone who supports, protects or harbors them would be held to account," the vice president said. The commission investigating the attacks found that there were contacts but no collaboration between Iraq and al Qaeda.
The wisdom of the emphasis on terrorism will not be known for two months. The Post poll indicates that the economy is still the most important issue for voters, with 31 percent ranking it first. Terrorism was rated highest by 19 percent, while Iraq was rated highest by another 19 percent -- giving national security issues a combined 38 percent.
Nicolle Devenish, the Bush campaign communications director, said Bush, in his acceptance speech Thursday, will wrap domestic policy, the economy and national security into a cohesive whole. But she gave no hint that the emphasis would shift. "We are a country at war," she said. "Because of the times we live in, you can't separate the wartime leader from the war."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.