Texas Republican Chairman Fred Meyer says that President Bushcan turn around the election through a great acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Houston tomorrow night.
Mr. Meyer exaggerates the potential of acceptance speeches; by themselves, they rarely transform elections.
Still, presidential acceptance speeches often help trigger a convention "bounce"-- the immediate, but often short-lived, rise in the candidate's polls following a national convention. George Bush's rousing acceptance speech in 1988 helped smother Michael Dukakis' 1988 bounce, which itself was largely a result of a surprisingly effective acceptance speech.
George Bush has several things going for him. Working against him are the unrealistic expectations that he has raised himself. For weeks he has been promising that the convention would mark a watershed point in his reversal of fortune. This puts tremendous pressure on him to produce rhetorical magic with immediate results. Such predictions can mitigate a speech's effect.
Working for Mr. Bush is the fact that it is fairly easy to produce a rousing, even moving acceptance speech even if one is not an accomplished speaker. Examples abound of major politicians who gave stemwinders at their party's conventions after giving snoozers at earlier ones: Gerald Ford in 1980 gave a speech that was heralded as his best ever after delivering a disaster in 1976.
What should Mr. Bush say in his acceptance speech tomorrow night? Here's some advice for the candidate:
* State your "vision" of America. While the criticism that you have no "vision" may be overblown, Bill Clinton hit you hard on it in his acceptance speech. So you must articulate clear principles and a future for America, including specific economic proposals.
* Emphasize, as you did in 1988, your underdog status and the fact that you are "not a quitter," a phrase that has been working for politicians ever since Richard Nixon used it in his 1952 "Checkers" speech. Your 1988 acceptance address spoke to this point when you were reeling from the "wimp" label and Mr. Dukakis' temporary lead in the polls.
* Hit Mr. Clinton on his weaknesses, but not personally. When times are bad, personal attacks from the president make it seem as if you're unconcerned about solving the country's problems.
* Attack Mr. Clinton on taxing and spending -- issues Mr. Clinton calls "an old Republican canard" but which still make voters wary of Democrats. You should say that "only the rhetoric has changed; Mr. Clinton calls spending 'investing' and thinks he can fool the American people."
* Foreign policy remains your strong suit. You must outline a general policy for conflicts such as Serbia's war with Bosnia, which may be a prototype for future conflicts in the post-Cold War era.
Point out that Mr. Clinton has no foreign policy expertise to guide American policy and that during the U.S. confrontation with Iraq he didn't make a single public statement on the issue.
A successful acceptance speech is necessary but not sufficient for Mr. Bush to make a comeback against the "Comeback Kid." The above advice can only give him a fighting chance. But a fighting chance is precisely what acceptance speeches are supposed to confer.
Richard E. Vatz is professor of rhetoric at Towson State University. Lee S. Weinberg is associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.