As key battleground states tip to the Democrats, Washington's liberal pundits now believe the election is John Kerry's to lose. But at next week's GOP convention, George W. Bush may have one last chance for a quick bounce to put him back on top.
It won't be easy: The president has to reassure the right, motivate the middle, promote the economy, and plead for the war effort-all while casting doubt on his popular opponent.
With thousands of core Republicans gathering in New York next week, President Bush's speech on Sept. 2 could be dismissed as mere preaching to a very large choir. Still, it promises to be a crucially important sermon-and visiting evangelists will have a low profile, if any at all. Previous GOP conventions have often put in the spotlight a prominent minister or evangelist, but none of the nearly 30 speakers announced by the GOP by Aug. 19 is in that category.
Instead, convention viewers will see a steady stream of the party's best-known moderates, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Gov. George Pataki, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and Arizona Sen. John McCain. The guest list has some social conservatives worried that the White House is taking their support for granted.
"Evangelicals will listen very closely to the GOP convention," says Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America. "They might not vote for Kerry, but they need to be inspired to get out and vote at all. In this election, unless they feel their vote is going to make a difference . . . they will withdraw from the whole process and say politics is politics."
With polls showing a tight race, Mr. Bush can hardly afford to have the choir go on strike. But he has other worries, as well. At a convention where the president desperately wants unity, socially liberal Republicans are threatening a floor fight over a platform plank saying, in effect, that the GOP welcomes pro-abortion, pro-gay views in the party.
"It is not enough to have inclusive voices like Mayor Giuliani, Gov. Schwarzenegger, and Sen. McCain speaking in primetime if the platform only represents the voices of exclusion," complains Patrick Guerriero of the pro-gay Log Cabin Republicans.
After an unusually peaceful convention for the normally fractious Democrats, President Bush is eager to show that his party is united as well. That means social issues will likely take a back seat in New York, if they are mentioned at all. From abortion to gay marriage to stem-cell research, hot-button issues will get a cool reception from the political stylists trying to ensure that the GOP is ready for its prime-time close-up.
"You're probably not going to see that sort of issue raised at the national level," says John Fortier, a research fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Sometimes hot-button issues are not dealt with on national TV, but on more segmented media" like talk radio, he says. Mr. Fortier believes Republicans will quietly shore up support among the faithful while saving their TV time for issues like the economy and the war.
Unity isn't the only goal driving the choice of convention topics. Though Mr. Bush's overall approval rating has inched up to 51 percent in the latest Gallup Poll, other major polls still have him mired in the mid-40s. More ominously, half of all Americans now say his decision to invade Iraq was a mistake. But the GOP does have a strong selling point in the stories of Iraqis and Afghans liberated from tyranny, and supporters will expect them to receive prime-time emphasis.
The nascent economic recovery may also be showing signs of slowing, weakening Mr. Bush's domestic numbers. Thus, war and the economy are likely to dominate the convention because they dominate the minds of voters.
Military and economic fears have allowed Sen. Kerry to open up leads in battleground states like Florida, West Virginia, and New Hampshire. Led by The Washington Post's David Broder, the dean of conventional wisdom inside the Beltway, some Washington pundits now view Sen. Kerry as the clear leader in the race for the White House. President Bush needs to reverse his slide before such polls become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a post-convention bounce is his best shot at doing so.
"What the convention does is let Bush try to frame the campaign to focus on the issues he wants to focus on," says Mickey Craig, the Ross Alexander Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. "In a close election, the person who's best at framing the issues is the one who will win.
"Bush will say, here's what I've done. Are you happy with how I've served as commander in chief? Do you trust me to continue the war on terror?"
In addition to allaying doubts over his handling of the war and the economy, Mr. Bush could use the convention podium to reinforce nagging doubts about his opponent's military service. With Mr. Kerry's image built largely on his status as a war hero, Republican strategists believe his support would quickly collapse if his Vietnam biography were ever brought into serious question.
But directly attacking Sen. Kerry from the convention platform is dangerous for the GOP. Polls show many voters resent "negative campaigning," and the media made much of the "upbeat" tone at the Democratic Convention in Boston. Moreover, the Kerry team has already honed an all-purpose reply to negative charges by the Republicans: The president is attacking, they say, because he is slipping in the polls and growing increasingly desperate.
Still, if the media won't press the issue (see sidebar), President Bush and other convention speakers may have to do it themselves. Driving up Sen. Kerry's negative numbers may be the quickest way to stabilize the president's own numbers.