The G.O.P. Arrives, Putting Sept. 11 Into August

Published: August 30, 2004

Republican leaders said yesterday that they would repeatedly remind the nation of the Sept. 11 attacks as their convention opens in New York City today, beginning a week in which the party seeks to pivot to the center and seize on street demonstrations to portray Democrats as extremist.

Party aides said the convention would begin with an elaborate tribute to Sept. 11 victims, with speeches by Senator John McCain and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, reminding voters of Mr. Bush's role in leading the nation after the attacks, which took place a couple of miles from Madison Square Garden, home of the convention.

"Winston Churchill saw the dangers of Hitler when his opponents and much of the press characterized him as a warmongering gadfly," Mr. Giuliani plans to say, according to excerpts from his speech released last night. "George W. Bush sees world terrorism for the evil that it is, and he will remain consistent to the purpose of defeating it while working to make us ever safer at home."

Indeed, the Sept. 11 invocations began even before the convention opened, leaving little doubt of the prominent role the attack on New York will play at the first Republican convention ever held in this city. At a rally yesterday afternoon on Ellis Island, Vice President Dick Cheney recalled the president's visit to ground zero three days after the attack.

"They saw a man calm in crisis, comfortable with responsibility and determined to do everything to protect our people," he said.

At the same time, responding to the sight of New York streets packed with protesters yesterday, Republican officials sought to connect the demonstrations to Democrats as part of a broader effort to paint Senator John Kerry as out of the mainstream. The Republican Party chairman, Ed Gillespie, noted to reporters that the legion of protesters included Peggy Kerry, Mr. Kerry's sister, who lives in New York and attended an abortion rights rally.

And Mr. Bush's campaign communications director, Nicolle Devenish, said in an interview: "Those who support the president are inside the Garden. Those who are opposed to the president's policies are protesting outside the Garden."

The developments came on the eve of what party officials saw as a potentially tumultuous and politically complicated week. Mr. Bush seeks to accomplish a critical political goal - broadening his appeal to the center - against the backdrop of the biggest demonstrations in New York in 22 years and charges by some Democrats that he is trying to turn the tragedy of Sept. 11 to his political advantage.

After months of cultivating his conservative base by pressing positions like his support for a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, Mr. Bush, his aides said, will use his speech accepting the Republican nomination on Thursday to present what they described as a second-term agenda focused on health care, retirement, education and economic security.

Advisers said Mr. Bush would return to a theme of an "ownership society" that encourages Americans to take more responsibility for their retirement and health care needs, including the creation of private accounts in Social Security. Other Republicans said Mr. Bush was likely to offer some sort of tax simplification plan.

In a development reminiscent of the way Democrats managed to paper over differences on the Iraq war, there was some evidence here that tensions between moderates and conservatives over issues like gay marriage and abortion were easing because of the desire of both wings to ensure Mr. Bush's re-election.

"There are people who have some difficulties with Bush about the war, but they're not expressing them," said Phyllis Schlafly, a longtime conservative activist. "You have some old-time Goldwater fiscal conservatives not happy with big spending, and you have a lot of people not happy with the immigration issue. But overriding all of that, the choice is Bush v. Kerry, and they want Bush."

Delegates arrived in New York on a hot and humid August day, expressing confidence in Mr. Bush's success and applauding him for using the stage of the city - the site of the worst terrorist attack in the nation's history - for a convention.

"We absolutely need to invoke Sept. 11 in the convention," said Richard Aguilar, a delegate from Minnesota. "This election will determine how we fight a war on terror that began right here in this city."

That sentiment was echoed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who denied the suggestion by Democrats that the president was trying to exploit the tragedy for political gain.

"I don't know anybody that's trying to exploit 9/11," Mr. Bloomberg said. "Quite the contrary. Nine-eleven is one of the defining moments of our lives."