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A case for reelection based on the war

PRESIDENT BUSH delivered two speeches in Madison Square Garden last night. One was a fairly pedestrian affair -- a laundry list of domestic policies and promises that sounded like a State of the Union address. The other was a soaring defense of his record as commander in chief since Sept. 11, 2001. There couldn't have been much doubt which part of the speech his heart was in. The theme that supposedly linked the two halves of Bush's speech was articulated early on: "In our world, and here at home, we will extend the frontiers of freedom."

But there really is little comparison between the kind of "freedom" represented by Bush's lengthy recitation of domestic proposals -- everything from "laws to offer comp time and flex time" to providing more funding for local community colleges -- and the kind of freedom that American soldiers are risking their lives to secure in the Middle East.

Perhaps the laundry list was politically unavoidable. At least it deflects the Democratic charge that the GOP convention was about nothing but 9/11. And Bush can now fairly claim to have laid out a sweeping domestic agenda for a second term.

But this election is not and never has been about domestic policy. Tax simplification won't be uppermost in many voters' minds on Election Day. Neither will home ownership. Neither will No Child Left Behind -- or, as Bush rather condescendingly put it, No Dejaremos a Ningun Nino Atras. The election is going to turn on the war -- the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the broader war against radical Islamic terrorism. And it is when he speaks about the war that Bush is most eloquent and presidential -- and when he most persuasively makes the case for his own reelection.

"Four years ago," he said, "Afghanistan was the home base of Al Qaeda, Pakistan was a transit point for terrorist groups, Saudi Arabia was fertile ground for terrorist fund-raising, Libya was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons, Iraq was a gathering threat, and Al Qaeda was largely unchallenged as it planned attacks. Today the government of a free Afghanistan is fighting terror, Pakistan is capturing terrorist leaders, Saudi Arabia is making raids and arrests, Libya is dismantling its weapons programs, the army of a free Iraq is fighting for freedom, and more than three-quarters of Al Qaeda's key members and associates have been detained or killed. We have led, many have joined, and America and the world are safer."

Bush rests his claim to another term in office on the success of his strategy so far and on the promise of greater success to come. He comes out of this convention with the wind at his back and the polls in his favor -- and with nine very tough weeks to go.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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