NEW YORK — Less than two weeks before the anniversary of September 11 and just four miles north of Ground Zero, the Republicans left no doubt Monday that they intend this election (and this convention) to be first and foremost a referendum on George W. Bush's handling of the war on terror.
Inside a heavily fortified Madison Square Garden, the party advanced a simple goal on the first night of its convention: to convince voters that while George W. Bush has steadfastly made the world a safer place, John Kerry would be a flip-flopping disaster.
A somewhat subdued John McCain set the tone with a detailed defense of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. "Those who criticize [the decision to go to war] 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," the Arizona senator declared. "Our choice wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war. It was between war and a graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
While not effusive with his praise of President Bush, McCain's message was well received by Republicans who may have expected worse. After a tough primary loss to Bush in 2000, McCain has often seemed eager to highlight his disagreements with the president.
Yet on Monday there was no mention of any conflict. Instead, McCain called him a "leader with experience" and "resolve." There was also no mention of McCain's friend and fellow senator, John Kerry. In fact, the only individual McCain took time to attack from the stage was the "disingenuous" left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore (who was on hand for the speech and responded by doffing his hat to the boos of the crowd, and mouthing "Two more months" in response to the crowd's chants for "Four more years").
The job of attack dog was therefore left to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who approached it with characteristic New York chutzpa. Giuliani began his speech by describing the morning of September 11 and revealing that, "Without really thinking, based on just emotion, spontaneously, I grabbed the arm of then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and I said to him, 'Bernie, Thank God George Bush is our president.' And I say it again tonight: Thank God George Bush is our president."
Giuliani then moved in for the kill, ridiculing Kerry for his evolving positions on the situation in Iraq: "Maybe this explains John Edwards' need for two Americas," a reference to a frequent Edwards allusion about income inequality, "One is where John Kerry can vote for something and another where he can vote against exactly the same thing."
This wasn't the first time Kerry was attacked from the stage. Unlike last month's Democratic convention, at which speakers were warned not to attack the president, John Kerry was a punching bag all day. In the morning session, for example, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert described Kerry as "weak on war and wrong on taxes."
No doubt the difference is due to the advice of campaign strategists of both parties. While Democrats wanted to avoid being seen as a party driven by an intense hate of the president, Republicans see the opportunity to negatively define Kerry in the minds of voters that still know comparatively little about him.
Despite Monday's emphasis on war and terror, there are other issues of importance to Republicans. Earlier in the day, the party adopted a platform that differs markedly from that of the Democrats, especially in its opposition to gay marriage and legalized abortion and its embrace of tax cuts and social-security privatization.
Tuesday, the convention plans to highlight those issues with speakers that include Education Secretary Rod Paige, first lady Laura Bush and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.