NEW YORK -- Vice President Dick Cheney mounted a withering attack on the Democratic nominee last night, stepping into the spotlight at the Republican National Convention to accuse Senator John F. Kerry of a "habit of indecision" that would jeopardize national security if he were elected president.
Cheney spoke dismissively of Kerry on several fronts, saying the Democratic candidate failed to grasp the dangers of terrorism, refused to support American troops on the battlefield, and voted outside the mainstream in the Senate. But he made his severest attacks on Kerry's character -- part of a dramatically negative shift in the convention's tone by Cheney and the keynote speaker, Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, after earlier attempts to convey an upbeat message.
"On Iraq, Senator Kerry has disagreed with many of his fellow Democrats, but Senator Kerry's liveliest disagreement is with himself," Cheney said, drawing jeers of "flip-flop, flip-flop" from the crowd. "His back-and-forth reflects a habit of indecision and sends a message of confusion. And it is all part of a pattern."
Playing off a Democratic campaign theme about divisions within the country, Cheney said: "Senator Kerry says he sees two Americas. It makes the whole thing mutual -- America sees two John Kerrys."
In the keynote address that riled the audience into a frenzy, Miller took an exceptionally harsh approach, excoriating Kerry as "more wrong, more weak, and more waffly than any other national figure." Miller, 72, a Democrat, repeatedly painted Kerry as a vacillating politician, adding to the increasingly militaristic message of the convention.
"George Bush wants to grab terrorists by the throat and not let them go to get a better grip," Miller said. "From John Kerry, they get a yes-no-maybe bowl of mush that can only encourage our enemies and confuse our friends."
Miller then echoed the criticisms leveled by a group of swift boat veterans who have been working to discredit Kerry's Vietnam war record and postwar objections to the conflict, adding, "As a war protester, Kerry blamed our military." And in some of the strongest rhetoric of the convention, Miller all but accused fellow members of his party of being unpatriotic.
"To their way of thinking, America is the problem, not the solution," Miller said.
Democrats quickly denounced both prime-time speeches. They said Miller, now seen by the party as a traitor, praised Kerry as "one of this nation's authentic heroes" in a speech just three years ago and spoke on behalf of Bill Clinton as the keynote speaker at the 1992 Democratic convention.
Cheney, who was first added to the Bush ticket to lend his foreign policy credentials but has become its most controversial figure in the years since, formally accepted the party's nomination as the vice presidential candidate, laying to rest suspicions that he would be dropped. His comments, directed at the party's most conservative faithful, laid the groundwork for what is expected to be a more textured, "compassionate" address by President Bush tonight.
Speaking in broad strokes, Cheney declared this year's presidential election one of the "defining moments" in American history, saying "on the question of America's role in the world, the differences between Senator Kerry and President Bush are the sharpest, and the stakes for the country are the highest."
That was a theme both sides embraced yesterday. Kerry, speaking to veterans in Tennessee, sharpened his criticism of the war in Iraq and disputed a notion, voiced recently by Bush, that the two men agreed on how it should have been handled. "It's not that I would have done one thing differently -- I would have done everything differently," Kerry said, part of his intensifying effort to blunt any bounce in the polls Bush might gain from his party's festivities.
But it was Republican conventioneers who reveled most in distinguishing between the two candidates. In a string of speeches by guests with connections to Kerry -- including Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts; his lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey; and Miller -- the delegates heard a litany of scathing criticism about the Democratic nominee.
Meanwhile, as a vivid reminder of the security threats Republicans have focused on all week, law enforcement officials mounted what they described as their largest domestic security operation ever to protect the arriving president, deploying tens of thousands from across all levels of government.
Protests continued, with the number of arrests rising above 1,700. Eleven members of the AIDS activist group ACT UP got onto the floor of Madison Square Garden early in the day and staged a brief disruption. Later, during the Cheney speech, a woman created a brief disturbance. In both cases, security swept in quickly and made arrests.
In an arrival designed for maximum dramatic effect, Bush landed in New York last night for a campaign stop with firefighters in Elmhurst, Queens, that was broadcast via satellite into the convention hall. Bush received the endorsement yesterday of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York -- a group much smaller than the International Association of Fire Fighters, which endorsed Kerry, but a symbolically potent one nonetheless, reviving imagery of Bush's visit to ground zero after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Without visiting the site where the World Trade Center once stood, the most prominent speakers at the convention have nonetheless kept the attacks at the forefront of their message. Cheney did so forcefully last night, both in heralding Bush as the ideal leader in the face of the terrorist threat and in criticizing Kerry.
Repeatedly, Cheney questioned Kerry's judgment. "Even in this post-9/11 period, Senator Kerry doesn't appear to understand how the world has changed," Cheney said. "He talks about leading a 'more sensitive war on terror,' as though Al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side," he continued, drawing shouts and applause.
Then, in a passage that prompted chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A," Cheney said: "He declared at the Democratic convention that he will forcefully defend America -- after we have been attacked. My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked, and faced with an enemy who seeks the deadliest of weapons to use against us, and we cannot wait for the next attack. We must do everything we can to prevent it, and that includes the use of military force."
Kerry has questioned Bush's failure to win broad support before invading Iraq, a point Cheney seized upon last night, suggesting Kerry would have sought "permission" to defend the national interest. "Senator Kerry denounces American action when other countries don't approve, as if the whole object of our foreign policy were to please a few persistent critics." It is a point on which the two sides vehemently disagree; although Kerry says he would use a preemptive invasion more judiciously than Bush, he has also said he would not put US security in the hands of other countries. Rather, Kerry has contended, he would use diplomacy to win support from potential allies.
"A senator can be wrong for 20 years without consequence to the nation," Cheney said. "But a president, a president always casts the deciding vote. And in this time of challenge, America needs, and America has, a president we can count on to get it right."
Convention planners have been building toward tonight, when Bush delivers his acceptance speech in prime time and immediately departs for a campaign appearance the next day in Scranton, formally launching the final two-month phase before the general election. Kerry and his running mate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, are planning a vigorous postconvention offensive as well, beginning with an appearance in Ohio tonight after Bush's speech concludes.
Bush practiced his speech for about two hours yesterday, White House officials said. Administration officials have long promised a major rollout of his second-term proposals; apart from a plan allowing employees "flex time" in their work schedules, Bush has given few details about his proposals. Pre ceding him on the podium will be retired General Tommy Franks and several uniformed officers, continuing the focus on security.
Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at email@example.com.