A high-stakes opportunity


NEW YORK- It isn't the biggest speech of his life, but it's close.

With his job on the line, President Bush will get a rare opportunity when he formally accepts renomination at tonight's closing session of the Republican National Convention.

Bush "has got two handles to move the numbers" in the deadlocked presidential contest, said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist. One is a series of debates with Sen. John Kerry, his Democratic opponent, expected to begin at the end of this month. The other is his acceptance speech.

For Bush, the stakes could hardly be higher, according to Republican politicians. They describe the address as his most important speech since he took the nation to war against Iraq.

"I believe the race at the moment is the president's to lose. That's the good news. The bad news is, if the speech is not outstanding and he doesn't do well in the debates, there is a possibility he will lose," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah. "It's close enough that a misstep by the president could tip it."

Bush cannot simply salute the country and report for duty, as Kerry did in his convention appearance, Republicans say.

The president must defend the decisions he's made over the past four years, including the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. It's a record that has left a relatively small but crucial slice of the electorate undecided about whether he deserves another term. According to Bush aides, about one voter in every 10 around the country is up for grabs.

In his speech, Bush is expected to highlight his leadership in the fight against terrorism, the overriding theme of the convention. Opinion polls show that the issue gives Bush his strongest advantage over Kerry.

Yet even supporters warn that he shouldn't spend too much time on that topic. Widespread dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the country, in spite of statistics that show the economy continuing to grow, makes it imperative that Bush let Americans know that he feels their fears.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft wants Bush to address the economic stress that people in his state, which could determine the winner of the 2004 election, have been experiencing.

Despite a slight improvement in Ohio's most recent employment numbers, "the anxiety remains," said Taft, whose state has lost about 150,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office (about the same number, coincidentally, as Bush's victory margin in the state in 2000).

"He needs to get the message out more clearly" that his policies are helping create new jobs, Taft said.

Bush aides describe tonight's convention climax as one of the few times in the course of a long campaign when the candidate commands the attention of a large national audience. They say that Kerry did not get a big lift out of his party's convention, and then slumped afterward, because he failed to take advantage of the moment to tell the public anything new.

Referring to the Democrat's heavy emphasis on military service during his acceptance speech, Bush strategist Matthew Dowd called it "a mistake, when you are talking to 25 or 30 million people, to tell them something they already know."

That heightens the pressure on Bush to deliver what aides said he will do tonight: outline his agenda for a second term, something he's been criticized for not doing in the campaign.

"Certainly, you'll hear the president talking about what he wants to do over the next four years, based on what we've been through and accomplished over the last four years," said Ken Mehlman, the Bush campaign manager. But he tried to lower expectations that Bush would offer a detailed second-term plan by contending that convention speeches are "more thematic" by nature.

According to reports in recent weeks, initiatives that Bush may outline tonight, under the "opportunity society" theme he's been promoting, include: a sweeping overhaul of the nation's tax system and several plans from his 2000 campaign that failed to make it into law, most notably one to privatize Social Security.

"We think it's going to be a pretty organized, thoughtful agenda and plan on a lot of different issues, primarily the economy and terrorism," Dowd told a group of reporters.

Politicians in both parties will be closely observing how Bush contrasts himself with Kerry, whether he criticizes the challenger directly, as he has for months in campaign speeches, or opts for a more oblique approach, leaving the sharpest attack lines to others, such as the parade of speakers at last night's session.

Not everyone in the president's camp sees Bush's speech in make-or-break terms.

More important than anything Bush says at the convention, according to Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, will be what he does on his frequent visits to the state, which has emerged as one of the tightest, electoral-vote rich battlegrounds in the country.

"He needs to come and deliver the tailored message for the community he's in," said Santorum, the Bush campaign's state chairman.

Mississippi delegate Clarke Reed, 76, predicted that the speech would be "quite important" and succeed in firing up the Republican base.

But Reed, a veteran of every convention since 1964, said the speech is unlikely to change the outcome of the election.

"After 11 of these conventions, I can't remember any of them that did," he said with a grin.

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