NEW YORK - Republicans belittled Democratic Sen. John Kerry as a shift-in-the-wind campaigner unworthy of the White House on Monday, opening their national convention four miles from Ground Zero of America's worst terrorist attack. "We need George Bush more than ever," said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
"We need a leader with the experience to make the tough decisions and the resolve to stick with them," added Arizona Sen. John McCain on a night that repeatedly stirred painful memories of the terrorist strike - and the president's response to the defining moment of his term.
Challenging critics of the commander in chief, McCain also called the invasion of Iraq "necessary, achievable and noble."
The president, locked in a tight race for re-election, campaigned in New Hampshire and Michigan. But he muddled the convention's carefully scripted message when he told an interviewer he doubted victory is possible in the war on terror.
"I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create the conditions that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world," Bush said on NBC. Kerry responded that the struggle was "absolutely" winnable and Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards said Bush's remark amounted to a concession of defeat in the war that terrorists launched in 2001.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan hastened to clarify the president's remarks, saying Bush meant the war was not a conventional one, and neither would be its ending.
There was no misunderstanding Giuliani's meaning as the former mayor recalled the day the president stood atop a pile of rubble at Ground Zero and vowed to avenge the attacks. He likened Bush to Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill for holding fast to his convictions in the face of ridicule. "Some call it stubbornness. I call it principled leadership," he said.
Bush, he added, "sees world terrorism for the evil that it is," Giuliani said. "John Kerry has no such clear, precise and consistent vision."
The delegates met at Madison Square Garden, four miles from where the World Trade Center twin towers once stood - gathering under security so tight that umbrellas were banned from the hall as potential weapons.
With polls showing Bush's leadership in the war on terror a political strength, a parade of speakers repeatedly used their turn at the podium to summon memories of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Timmy is my hero. I am honored to share him with you," said Tara Stackpole, widow of a firefighter who went into the burning towers but never came out.
In a prelude to the evening's political oratory, delegates ratified Bush's unflinchingly conservative re-election platform. It, too, lauded his response to the terrorist attacks, declaring, "The president's most solemn duty is to protect our country. George W. Bush has kept that charge."
McCain and Giuliani were the evening's principal prime-time speakers, a reflection of their ability to command political support outside the president's conservative base.
Both men took pains to reach out to Democrats. And while Giuliani ridiculed Kerry repeatedly, McCain offered no criticism of the president's Democratic rival, his longtime Senate colleague and a man he calls a friend. But he gave a full-throated endorsement of Bush as a wartime president.
Since the day terrorists attacked, McCain said of Bush, "He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield. And neither will we."
Giuliani, who achieved national prominence for his stewardship of the city in the hours and days after the Sept. 11 attacks, said that since that day, "President Bush has remained rock solid. It doesn't matter how he is demonized."
In contrast, "John Kerry has made it the rule to change his position, rather than the exception," Giuliani said in remarks that were designed to undercut Kerry's claim that he is ready to take command in an era of terrorism.
There was more as Republicans sought to shake the claims that Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, made at his own convention earlier this summer in Boston.
"Kerry is weak on war and wrong on taxes," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
Officials mustered a security force of thousands in the area around the hall, part of an effort to thwart any attempt at a repeat attack. A helicopter circled the skies over the arena, while police barricades made an 18-square-block surrounding the Garden off-limits to most vehicles.
Inside the hall, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne were ushered to their seats in late morning, in time to hear his name and the president's placed in nomination for another term. "Four more years" the delegates shouted in unison.
Polls show Bush in a tough race for re-election, and Kerry has been helped by surveys showing that at least a strong plurality of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. At the same time, the president receives high marks from the public for his decisiveness and leadership. And recent attacks by an outside group of veterans on Kerry's military service have coincided with polls suggesting increased momentum for the incumbent.
Democrats call the attacks a Republican-financed smear campaign.
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