The Two Americas Candidates

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Strength or stubbornness? Intelligence or weakness? Those are buzzwords Republicans and Democrats are putting to voters as the second convention gets under way and the final rush of the campaign begins. Is John Kerry a flip-flopper without principles, or a pragmatic, nuanced thinker? Is George Bush a stubborn ideologue, or a strong, principled commander in chief?

For now the pendulum has swung toward Bush's argument. Kerry had a unified convention in Boston, and though the sharply divided nature of the electorate prevented him from getting an immediate bounce, he established enough credibility with voters to pick up 2-3 points in many key battleground states. But the last two weeks have seen that advantage fade. And the hoopla over the Swift Boat Veterans' ads is not completely responsible. Kerry did not build on his convention message. He failed to articulate a detailed vision of what his wiser war on terrorism would mean. It's not enough for Kerry to say he could fight a better war if he doesn't explain how in a compelling, ambitious plan.

Now it's Bush's turn. Monday night set the tone as the Republicans in Madison Square Garden looked back to September 11th, remembering when Bush stood in the World Trade Center rubble three days later and pledged that the terrorists would hear from the United States. In the evening's main speeches both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain re-linked the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq as the same conflict and argued that Bush had to invade Iraq to undercut a key pillar of support for global terrorism. Giuliani was merciless in painting Kerry as a flip-flopper on Iraq and suggested that if Kerry were in office, he would attempt to appease Europe and the terrorists. The delegates in the hall agreed wholeheartedly, of course. But the Republicans are trying to reach swing voters, and their message is that even if voters aren't sure Bush's decision to go to Iraq was the right one, it is better to be aggressive and suffer casualties in Iraq than here at home.

The Republicans shifted to domestic issues Tuesday night, as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Laura Bush talk about education, diversity and "compassion." But don't expect the main themes to change. The speakers will portray Bush's domestic policies as a symbol of his strong beliefs and his determination to stick to them. And they'll accuse Kerry of shifting his positions to suit the political winds. On Thursday night, the President will look toward the future, and give a preview of his agenda for a second term, but that will not change the ultimate focus on strength and national security. In a time of international uncertainty, the President is banking on being the toughest guy on the ballot.