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Bush's Big Night

He has a chance to seize control of the race.

10:00 PM, Sep 1, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
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PRESIDENT BUSH has reason to be delighted, though not giddy, as he prepares for his acceptance speech to the Republican convention tonight. He's already gotten to the point in the campaign against John Kerry where he figured to be after the convention. Several weeks ago, he was a few points down. Now, Bush and his aides believes, he's a few ahead.

Still, he faces enormous pressure to deliver an effective address. The speeches here leading up to his have cast him as a world-class statesman in the same class as Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan. So to fit the role he's been assigned, he needs to deliver a world-class speech. And if he does, the reward may be great. In 1996, President Clinton came out of his convention with a lead of a half-dozen points over Bob Dole and never relinquished it. Bush could do the same.

The model for the Bush address is the acceptance speech of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. FDR was a wartime president, just as Bush describes himself now. In his speech, Roosevelt defended his war record, castigated doubters and opponents, and spoke in broad but not specific terms about his vision of a fourth term. It was a terrific speech. Should Bush do as well as FDR, he will have taken a huge step toward reelection.

Bush, however, will be a bit more detailed in describing his domestic policy plans. Stephen Friedman, the top White House economic adviser, says he will talk about the "ownership society." That will be no surprise. The question is how bold his proposal to empower average citizens and allow them to control their own Social Security, health care, and savings will be.

What prompted Bush and his advisers to take an FDR speech as the prototype? The answer is that FDR in 1944 was an embattled incumbent, a war president on whom the war had taken a toll. For FDR, a simple stay-the-course campaign wouldn't work, nor could he get away with merely demonizing his opponent, Tom Dewey. He had to do some of both--and more. In the speech, he had to rise above the mundane political situation. Bush does too.

Not everything has gone swimmingly for Bush on the eve of his speech. As Kerry has stumbled, Bush seems to have gotten less disciplined. Last Saturday, he taped an interview with the Today show in which he said the war on terror could not be won. It was fairly clear he meant there would never be peace talks and a formal surrender by terrorists. But he didn't offer that clarification.

The White House communications staff had two days to take the edge off Bush's gaffe before the interview was broadcast. But they did nothing. Democrats jumped on the remark instantly. Both Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, declared they believe the war against terrorists can be won and, indeed, that they intend to win it if elected.
Bush was left with two days of explaining to do, first in a speech, then in an interview with talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. Even that didn't silence Democrats on the point. Kerry, in his speech to the American Legion yesterday, continued to attribute the can't-win sentiment to Bush.

Bush can change all that tonight. He has an opportunity to pull away from Kerry, making this a potential turning point in the 2004 presidential race. No one had expected such a moment to arrive this early in the campaign. But Kerry, Bush advisers believe, has slipped because of a poorly conceived convention, attacks by the Swift boat veterans on his ballyhooed Vietnam record, and failure to take a decisive stand on Iraq.

Evidence of Kerry's decline has showed up in one particular poll question. Voters now see him as far less credible as a commander in chief than they did a few weeks ago. Bush's goal tonight is to seize once and for all the commander in chief's mantle for himself. With a great speech, he could achieve exactly that.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.