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On the Scene at the Republican Convention - 2004-08-30

The Republican Party?s 38th national convention has opened in New York City. It follows by a month the national convention of the Democratic Party in Boston. Since the Democrats convened, Republicans feel trends are moving their way and some interesting data - but not all data - bears them out.

Polls taken in advance of the Republican convention show that President Bush has regained a slight lead over his challenger from the Democratic Party, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Senator Kerry led the president by a small margin following the Democratic convention in July, but that lead has slipped away in the controversy over Senator Kerry?s service in the Vietnam War, and the anti-war stance he adopted following his return.

At the Democratic convention, Senator Kerry highlighted his Vietnam war experience. The crewmembers from his Vietnam ?swift boat? that he commanded joined him at the podium and the senator began his address by saying, ?I?m John Kerry and I?m reporting for duty!? This, Democrats felt, stood in contrast to President Bush?s stateside service during the Vietnam War when he was in the National Guard flying jets. Senator Kerry?s heroism in Vietnam (five medals overall) was also seen to be superior to President Bush?s National Guard service which includes incomplete records that critics cite as evidence that the president did not fulfill his military commitments.

But another group of Vietnam veterans who oppose Senator Kerry said that some of the senator?s medals were suspect and they bitterly criticized his famous anti-war comments made to a U.S. Senate committee in 1971. In that testimony, Senator Kerry cited charges from a controversial gathering of veterans who accused American soldiers of routinely committing atrocities in Vietnam. These men, who call themselves ?Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,? were incensed that Senator Kerry criticized American soldiers in 1971 but now claims the mantle of military hero.

While charges and countercharges flew, with veterans struggling to recall 30-year-old memories of Vietnam, the controversy exploded into a contentious national debate. Senator Kerry and the Democrats painted the Swift Boat veterans as a group financed and directed by President Bush?s re-election campaign and labeled the charges a ?smear?. No hard evidence has emerged to confirm a direct connection to the president?s re-election campaign. But a lawyer from the campaign who had advised the Swift Boat veterans on legal matters resigned, and a volunteer from the Bush campaign with ties to the group was also dismissed.

Nevertheless, the controversy has had an effect on the election and the ongoing Republican convention. Due to the rise in the president?s poll ratings, Republicans are feeling a lot better about their chances than they did two weeks ago. But the race is essentially still tied and much can happen in the ten weeks left before Americans go to the polls in November.

Here at the convention, President Bush gets an unfettered chance to present the reasons why he and Vice President Dick Cheney should be re-elected. The Republicans face doubts about the war in Iraq, questions about the U.S. economy, as well as concerns about national security and relations with traditional allies. Many political commentators around the convention say the president has to give a convincing speech on Thursday when he officially accepts the presidential nomination. But he will get a chance to do it before a friendly audience in the hall and a nationwide one watching on television.

On Sunday, more than 100,000 protestors marched in the streets of New York to illustrate their displeasure with the Bush administration. Further demonstrations are expected throughout the week and their effect on both the convention and the campaign could be negligible or critical depending on the shape and manner of the demonstrations.

In the end, the American voters will evaluate what they see and hear at both conventions to determine how they will cast their ballots in two and a half months. But this Republican convention will likely set the direction of the campaign through the first presidential debate on September 30. Republicans are hoping for another and major bounce in President Bush?s poll ratings as a result of the convention; Democrats believe there will be little or no bounce for the president and look to Senator Kerry to rebound in the coming weeks.

But for those who say conventions aren?t important, the events of the past month in Boston and what may transpire in the coming week in New York show that these quadrennial gatherings do matter and will likely continue to matter for the foreseeable future in the American electoral process. What began all the way back in 1831 somehow still finds a way to be relevant 173 years later.