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President strikes with a hard message

NEW YORK -- George W. Bush last night harked back to his uplifting acceptance speech of four years ago, putting a frosting of compassionate conservatism on a message built on a harder foundation: a fierce defense of military action against terrorism and a charge of moral indecision against his Democratic challenger, John Kerry.

By the time Bush reached the podium last night, a succession of speakers had struck those themes so strongly that they were like notes played over and over on the piano.

And despite Bush's efforts to weave in a blend of economic proposals -- principally new standards for high schools and empowerment zones to spur economic growth in troubled areas -- the convention is likely to be remembered for its harder message.

The convention also may be remembered for what it brought out in the sometimes reticent Kerry: sharp attacks of his own.

''I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq," Kerry declared yesterday in an unusual midnight rally to rebut Bush's speech.

Bush, in his tight 43-minute address, seemed ready for such a campaign, insisting that the Iraq was a byproduct of his efforts to fight terrorism.

''After more than a decade of diplomacy, we gave Saddam Hussein another chance, a final chance, to meet his responsibilities to the civilized world," Bush said. ''He again refused, and I faced the kind of decision that comes only to the Oval Office -- a decision no president would ask for, but must be prepared to make. Do I forget the lessons of Sept. 11 and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country? . . . I will defend America every time."

For Bush, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have become the start of a personal narrative, a story told throughout the convention via military music, videos, soulful benedictions, and even dance steps, with delegates waving cowboy hats.

In the story, Bush was an earnest, unassuming president, still new on the job, when he was suddenly confronted by a challenge unlike any handled by his recent predecessors.

Faced with the need to prevent future attacks, he drew on core American principles. His willingness to take action without United Nations approval was an assertion of self-defense. Bush, like many other speakers, extolled the value of preemptive action without discussing what followed the preemptive war in Iraq -- especially the Senate Intelligence Committee's findings of no credible evidence of a link between Hussein and Al Qaeda.

Bush's story was told in different tones by different speakers: the grudging respect of a former rival, Senator John S. McCain; the brotherly rapport of former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani; the action-hero energy of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California; and finally, the zealous faith of the converted Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, a Democrat drawn to Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Miller, joined by a more restrained Vice President Dick Cheney, led attacks Wednesday night on Kerry. Cheney wore a rueful grin in outlining Kerry's ''message of confusion." Miller, storming like an angry prophet, declared the Democrat unfit to protect the Georgian's family.

Some commentators wondered whether the GOP would suffer a backlash because of the aggressiveness with which some speakers attacked Kerry. But even some Democrats described it as a week that opened real wounds in Kerry.

''We have to get back to talking about the failures of this administration," veteran Democratic consultant William Carrick said. ''If you separate Iraq from the war on terrorism, people have a lot of concerns about Bush's foreign policy. The Republicans are trying to mash it all together."

Nonetheless, the fall campaign begins with Kerry on the defensive, decrying the harshness of the convention in the same righteous tone as he decried earlier attacks on his military service.

Over the years, Republicans have built a certain amount of attacking into their political persona, and the public has come to accept it. The party defines itself as staving off liberal assaults on American values.

This year, the Bush campaign vowed early to ''define" Kerry, and ran ads calling Kerry a ''flip-flopper" as soon as he secured the nomination. As months went by and Kerry and the president polled even, the Bush campaign worried that the strategy had failed.

But Republicans stuck with it, and this week it may have stuck on Kerry.

Bush enters the fall with a small lead in the polls, an energized party to boost him, and a successful, if ultimately bitter-tasting, convention behind him.

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