Can Bush Pass the 'Big Speech' Test?

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Richard Nixon, who learned the hard way, taught: The moment of triumph is the moment of vulnerability.

Thursday night, George W. Bush's moment of triumph represents the moment of greatest danger of his comparatively brief political career. Also the greatest opportunity. Philadelphia is to be an existential occasion for the governor of Texas. We'll see if he has it in him.

Bush has been a lucky man, and a shrewd one. It is hard to separate the luck from the cunning — just as, in the selection of Dick Cheney, it might be impossible to disentangle the influence of Bush the Father from the decision of Bush the Son.

W. came through the primaries almost without damage or error. The Bob Jones business in South Carolina left only a ding on the right front fender. The choice of Cheney will prove to have been a smart one: If you are going to attempt a fancy right-brain, left-brain formulation like "compassionate conservatism" — a flirtation with oxymoron — then you need a good solid conservative counterweight to offset the goody-gumdrop side. Cheney's high competence and affability armor him against liberal complaints about his voting record in Congress during the '80s. He got through the Sunday talk shows nicely. The dogs have barked on Bush's vice presidential choice; the caravan moves on.

In Philadelphia, there will be a certain amount of the usual, slightly condescending convention variety show — women, minorities, a gay congressman and other signals of the "compassionate" side. Colin Powell will be a draw for the television audience, as will John McCain. Speaker of the House Denny Hastert will not set the house on fire.

The only important business this week (the only real excuse for the convention) is George W. Bush's acceptance speech. In it, he will, or will not, persuade the nation's independent voters — the middle third of the electorate who will determine the outcome in November — that he is up to the job, that he is ready (mature, competent, intelligent enough) to be president of the United States.

This is an odd matchup. Al Gore is manifestly more qualified than Bush, from a technical point of view, to be president. But the election may be determined more by the independent voters' instincts about the personalities of the candidates than by a conscious and rational review of their résumés. Yesterday on "Meet the Press," James Carville did his best to defend Gore from imputations of a certain weirdness, but according to the polls, Americans are much more comfortable with Bush as a human being.

This election will be won or lost in the comfort zone. That is why Thursday night is critical.

What makes voters deeply uncomfortable is the perception that Bush, while he may have a first-rate temperament (as Justice Holmes said of Franklin Roosevelt), may possess a third-rate or even a fourth-rate intellect. Thursday night, Americans will get their first extended, totally focused, nationwide exposure to George W. Bush. Acclimated to flicking, two-second sound bites that tell little, voters may be mildly shocked to find that the television camera's unwavering attention during a long speech functions as a kind of X ray and truth serum.

If independent voters wind up in the comfort zone regarding Bush — if he shows them evidence of an intelligence, maturity and character only fleetingly inspected thus far — then Gore may be in terminal trouble from which even a championship performance in the debates later on could not extricate him.

But if Bush comes off on the callow side — all porch, no house, something missing upstairs — then independents will incline toward the safer, more rational (yet still obscurely disturbing) choice of Gore.