NEW YORK - When President Bush journeys to this city for the Republican convention, he won't revisit the World Trade Center site. He doesn't need to.
Fighting terrorism is already ground zero in Bush's re-election quest. Reminders of Sept. 11 - and the president's leadership after that disaster - go to the heart of his campaign strategy and will likely dominate news out of the Republican convention over the next four days.
Bush's handling of the war on terrorism is the one issue, above all others, that can earn him a second term, according to strategists in both parties. It is also a theme the president is giving fresh emphasis to as he tries to overcome worries about the direction of the country, the health of the economy and the conflict in Iraq.
"The question is: Who best to lead this country in the war on terror?" Bush said last week. "Who can handle the responsibilities of the commander in chief? Who's got a clear vision of the risks that the country faces?"
National opinion surveys point up the importance of the issue for Bush's candidacy. When voters are asked whom they trust to keep the country safe from terrorism, Bush enjoys a substantial edge over Sen. John Kerry. Many other indicators, from dealing with the economy to restoring respect for America around the world, favor the challenger.
Much of this week's convention, the first ever for Republicans in this heavily Democratic city, will be geared toward reminding voters about Bush's visit to the rubble of the twin towers, three days after the attack. Standing in the still-smoldering ruins, the president grabbed a bullhorn and shouted words of defiance to the hard-hatted rescue workers.
On Wednesday, the night before he delivers his acceptance speech, Bush will reportedly watch the convention on TV from a New York firehouse. Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the politician who personifies the city's valiant response to the Sept. 11 attack, will likely join him that night.
Using the war on terrorism as a political asset was a White House plan even before the party arranged to stage its convention at Madison Square Garden, a short cab ride from Ground Zero and a few days short of the third anniversary of Sept. 11. More than two years ago, Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, identified the fight against terrorism as a winning issue for Republicans.
"We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America," Rove told a January 2002 party gathering.
Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said that until Kerry got "diverted" by recent questions about his military service in Vietnam, he had begun to capitalize on voters' concerns about America's vulnerability to another attack.
"Bush is the commander in chief," Carrick said. "He got high marks for 9/11. And he has gotten his best [poll] numbers for that throughout the campaign.
"On the other hand, people don't think the war on terrorism has been won. For example, port security is a huge mess. Kerry was on the right track when he was talking about the 9/11 commission report and the serious structural [intelligence] reforms that are necessary, because that certainly makes the argument for change."
Over the past week, interviews with voters from around the country - conducted as they visited two iconic New York landmarks, the World Trade Center site and the Statue of Liberty - underscored some of the advantages for Bush in the terrorism issue, as well as potential pitfalls.
"This is a lesson that shouldn't be forgotten," said Marilyn Frush, 72, of Burlington, N.J., gesturing over the still-vacant blocks in Lower Manhattan where the twin towers fell. "There are people out there who hate us, and they're going to try to kill us."
Frush, a retired health care administrator and a political independent, isn't happy with parts of Bush's first-term record. She's critical of his Medicare drug reform plan, which she finds ineffectual. But she'll vote for Bush because of his handling of homeland security, "the absolutely most important thing going on in the country for this election. ... If we're taken over by terrorists, nothing else will matter."
Reduced to its essentials, the Republican case for a second Bush term comes down to this: Amid an international war against terrorists, America can't take a chance on new, untested leadership.
That argument resonates with Wayne Schaefer, who works at a lumber yard in Billings, Mont.
"I think it would be bad to change the commander in chief in the middle of the action," said Schaefer, 55, an Army veteran of Vietnam.
A new campaign commercial by Progress for America, a pro-Bush group, praises the president's handling of the Sept. 11 attacks. Using images of Bush's visit to the trade center rubble, the ad's narrator asks viewers to consider: "What if Bush wasn't there. Could John Kerry have shown this leadership?"
Schaefer, a Bush supporter, while conceding that he doesn't know much about Kerry, dismisses that question. He doubts that "Kerry's reaction would have been a lot different."
Another Bush backer, John Schatz of Queens, N.Y., also rejects the notion that Kerry would not be as well-equipped to protect the country.
"I don't think anybody is going to keep it safer than anybody else," said Schatz, a 62-year-old postal service worker who helped rescue victims of the disaster on Sept. 11 and whose sons, who work for the city's police and fire departments, lost close friends that day.
Schatz, making his first visit to the site in more than a year, found the name of a former neighbor on the necrology displayed on a fence next to the World Trade Center commuter train station, which reopened last year.
He worries about the financial drain the war on terrorism is taking on the country but believes it would best to give the president and his team another four years "just to keep everything intact" in that effort.
'A hornet's nest'
Because the president's counterterrorism campaign is closely linked to his handling of the war in Iraq, which gets much lower marks from the public, the issue blurs for many voters.
"We wouldn't be in this mess if Bush hadn't done what he did in Iraq. He stirred up a hornet's nest," said Cyril Clavers of Brillion, Wis., who believes Bush's miscalculations in Iraq have made the country less safe.
Clavers, a 43-year-old union worker at a paper plant, isn't particularly impressed with Kerry but said he thinks the Democrat "will do at least as much" to protect the country as Bush, because the government's counterterrorism apparatus "is already in place."
He, his wife and three children were among the first to step inside the Statue of Liberty since it partially reopened this month after being closed since Sept. 11. Visitors, who need reservations to be assured of an admission ticket, must pass through two security stations, one of which is more stringent than an airport security checkpoint, before being allowed to stand at Lady Liberty's feet.
Another tourist to Liberty Island, Mary Pearlman, a registered Democrat from Wilmette, Ill., isn't sure whether she will vote for Bush, as she did in 2000.
Pearlman believes Bush did make America safer by invading Iraq. "Now, those terrorists, whoever they are, realize we'll fight back," said the 46-year-old Pearlman. But at the same time, she thinks Bush has become "unguided" in Iraq.
She wants to hear more about his plans for that country before making up her mind.
Bush has said he'll offer his vision for the future in his acceptance speech Thursday night. But in his TV commercials and stump speeches, he often refers back to the Sept. 11 attacks, tying them to his "most solemn duty": keeping America safe and bringing terrorists "to justice, before they hurt us again."
Launching a cross-country pre-convention tour last week, with New York's former mayor at his side, Bush said he will "never forget the day Rudy and I went to the twin towers." If Bush and his strategists have their way, the voters won't, either.