Sabato's Crystal Ball

Republicans: It’s Ok to Vote for Us

Schwarzenegger stumps for Bush and simplifies the message

Peter Jackson, Senior Correspondent September 1st, 2004

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The GOP’s message for convention viewers this week has been very succinct: President Bush is the best candidate to lead the War on Terror. While the communications office here at the Republican National Convention has been telling the media each day has a theme–tonight’s was “People of Compassion”–if the focus of the election stays on terror, it will only benefit Bush.

Last night, Senator John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani hammered on the terror issue and they are both very credible sources in the minds of the electorate. One is a war veteran who is seemingly able to rise above the partisan politics of the Beltway, and the other is the undisputed hero in the aftermath of the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center. Although Arnold Schwarzenegger’s credentials on national security are pithy in comparison, he too was able to capitalize on the issue and frame the War on Terror as a choice between the two candidates for president this fall in his speech tonight.

Appealing to those voters who may have taken issue with the Republican platform, especially the GOP’s stance on certain social issues, Schwarzenegger said: “And maybe just maybe you don’t agree with this party on every single issue. I say to you tonight I believe that’s not only okay, that’s what’s great about this country. Here we can respectfully disagree and still be patriotic still be American and still be good Republicans.”

He followed with a skillful use of repetition declaring that if you are a voter who believes in government accountability, reduced government spending, and high standards in America’s schools, “then you are a Republican.” Finally, he proclaimed that “if you believe we must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism, then you are a Republican!”

The message: even if you don’t agree with us on everything, President Bush is the candidate that will keep you safe.

For some, the War on Terror is simply the battle against terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, but for Republicans and others, the War in Iraq is just a battle in the overarching fight to defeat terrorists. If the GOP can win this skirmish with the Democrats–that the Iraq war was an integral part of protecting the homeland–it could prove to be one of the many small miracles we’ve said President Bush needs in order to serve a second term. Despite the results of the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll showing that “the economy and jobs” is the single most important issue to a plurality of voters (31 percent), terrorism is the be all and end all of this election. “Terrorism” and “Iraq” both account for 19 percent–merge the two and that’s almost 40 percent of voters fixated on one issue in which the incumbent has the clear advantage. And as the intense security at Madison Square Garden and elsewhere reminds us, homeland security is still very much on the table.

This effort by the GOP to continually frame the presidential debate as an issue of which leader is best suited to lead the War on Terror comes on the heels of John Kerry’s apparent indecisiveness on Iraq. Earlier tonight, Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele used the same Kerry quote that drew rounds of applause for Giuliani last night: “I actually voted for the 87 billion dollars before I voted against it.”

In the era of the six-second sound bite, utterances like these can come back to haunt a candidate. When used by the opposition it is an attempt to simplify an idea to the point where there is no context, only confusion. Bush’s response to NBC’s Matt Lauer that “I don’t think we can win” the War on Terror could still prove to be equally devastating. However, the preponderance of short speech snippets plays to the Republican’s strong suit–Bush argues he’s unwavering and decisive whereas Kerry says it is a complex issue, and he can’t even say that very quickly every time.

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll doesn’t provide much good news for the Democrats, either. With Bush and Kerry tied in both the two- and three-way races for the White House, the president is gaining ground. With such a short period from the end of the Republican convention until the general election, even a small bounce in the polls next week will give the Bush campaign some momentum that could prove fatal to Kerry’s chances in November. Add to that the apparent success the GOP is having with the merging of terrorism and Iraq, and the recent shakeup in the Kerry campaign staff may be more than just an opportunity to bring some more hands on board.