NEW YORK -- Four miles from the pit at ground zero, Republicans opened their national convention yesterday with former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York paying tribute to the heroes and dead from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Senator John McCain saluting President Bush's leadership at home and abroad since Al Qaeda operatives launched their assault on the city's World Trade Center.
Giuliani vividly recalled seeing a man jump from a doomed, flaming twin tower and then telling New York's police commissioner, "Thank God, George Bush is our president."
The former mayor praised Bush as remaining tough in the war on terror even if it hurt his popularity, and contrasted him with Democratic nominee John F. Kerry.
"President Bush sees world terrorism for the evil it is; John Kerry has no such clear, precise, and consistent vision," Giuliani said to chants of "Four more years."
Security in New York was extremely tight yesterday; legions of police, state troopers, and federal agents patrolled the streets of Midtown as 2,508 delegates met inside Madison Square Garden. The Republicans chose New York City to reinforce Bush's contention that he would be a stronger leader than the Democratic nominee. Protesters who had marched by the tens of thousands Sunday receded as those New Yorkers who had not abandoned the city for vacation began the workweek.
On the floor of the convention, speaker after speaker spoke of Bush's resolve and defended such controversial decisions as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"He has been tested and has risen to the most important challenge of our time, and I salute him," McCain, an Arizona Republican and Bush's rival for the 2000 presidential nomination, said in his prime time speech after the first 32 states had cast their votes to begin the formal renomination of Bush.
"Only the most deluded of us could doubt the necessity of this war," McCain said, as he singled out "disingenuous" filmmaker Michael Moore and his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11." Moore, who was on the media riser as a guest columnist for USA Today, mouthed "Thank you" and tipped his cap as the crowd booed.
McCain studiously avoided mentioning Kerry, but earlier in the day he said it was acceptable to criticize his Senate colleague over his antiwar activities upon returning from his own combat tour. "What John Kerry did after the war is very legitimate political discussion," said McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years, during an appearance on CBS's "The Early Show."
Giuliani, who won worldwide acclaim for his strong leadership following the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on his city, compared Bush's leadership to that of Winston Churchill in the face of Adolf Hitler and that of President Reagan at the end of the Cold War.
"In times of danger, as we are now in, Americans should put leadership at the core of their decision," he said.
Giuliani also repeated a prevalent contention that the Democratic nominee is a flip-flopper. Invoking Kerry's running mate, he mischievously said, "Maybe this explains John Edwards's need for 'two Americas': one where John Kerry can vote for something and another one where he can vote against exactly the same thing." The crowd laughed, as it did several times when he deviated from his prepared text and told self-effacing stories.
Giuliani gave by far the longest speech of the night, roughly 45 minutes, and garnered cheers and applause throughout. "We're just not going to let the terrorists determine where we have political conventions, where we go, how we travel," he declared at one point. "We're Americans, the land of the free and the home of the brave." Giuliani was preceded in speaking by Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was captain of the jet that hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
As his party's convention opened in New York, Bush campaigned in Nashua and Taylor, Mich., part of an eight-state swing preceding his arrival in New York tomorrow night. He will formally accept his nomination for reelection Thursday.
The message of resolve was undercut somewhat by comments Bush made during an interview with NBC's "Today Show" that aired yesterday
"I don't think you can win it," the president said when asked about the war on terror, then continued, "But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world, let's put it that way." He added that "The long-term strategy is to spread freedom and liberty."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan sought to clarify the comments, saying: "We face an unconventional enemy. I don't think you can expect that there will ever be a formal surrender or a treaty signed like we have in wars past."
Democrats were less charitable, with Edwards saying during a national security speech in Wilmington, N.C.: "This is no time to declare defeat. It won't be easy and it won't be quick, but we have a comprehensive long-term plan to make America safer. And that's a difference."
Kerry himself is on a working vacation on Nantucket, enjoying lunch in Madaket before windsurfing near his home on Brant Point and conducting debate preparations with his campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill.
"Absolutely," the senator yelled out to reporters when asked whether the war on terrorism could be won.
Kerry will interrupt his vacation tomorrow to address the American Legion convention in Nashville. Bush is slated to speak there today.
In an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," Vice President Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary, said he had no regrets about not having served in the military himself. He received five deferments of service during the Vietnam War.
"A number of senior officials never served in the military," Cheney said. "A number of our great wartime leaders like [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] never served in the military. So, I don't think that's prohibited by any means."
The focus on Sept. 11 and its aftermath seemed appropriate to the Republican delegates interviewed on the floor of the Garden.
Angel Connell, a filmmaker and a Massachusetts delegate from Westford, said: "It's proper that the president remind people what happened and why he's doing what he's doing. . . . 9/11 was the Pearl Harbor of our generation."
While the first day of the convention was not aired by the major broadcast networks -- which televised only three of the four nights of activity from the Democratic National Convention last month -- the speaking list was nevertheless aimed at attracting moderate voters. Former mayor Ed Koch of New York, a Democrat, addressed the delegates, declaring, "This year I'm voting for the reelection of President George W. Bush!"
Scheduled to speak tonight are Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's governor and a former action-movie star, and the president's wife, Laura Bush. Tomorrow night, Cheney will formally accept his renomination in a speech to the delegates.
In calling the delegates to order, Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, "We will leave here with momentum that will carry us to victory in November."
The evening session opened with an invocation by Imam Izak-El Mu'eed Pasha, the black Muslim chaplain of the New York Police Department. It also included tributes to two former presidents, Gerald R. Ford and George H. W. Bush, the latter of whom was in the hall. It included live interviews from the floor and satellite locations with party operatives who gave the appearance of reporters as they carried microphones labeled "RNC."
In keeping with the national security theme, a choir ran through a medley of the theme songs for each of the nation's armed forces. The evening closed with a film of Frank Sinatra singing "New York, New York."
Susan Milligan of the Globe staff contributed to this story. Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.