NEW YORK – Nervous Republicans are urging President Bush to unveil a robust second-term agenda at his convention next week to shift voters' focus from the unpopular war in Iraq and other issues that are a distraction to his re-election drive. Some contend the party should ditch the GOP-fueled controversy over rival John Kerry's (search) combat record in Vietnam.
"If he gets on the future and effectively talks about the challenges that are ahead that only he can meet, then he'll be fine," said Joe Gaylord, a Republican strategist from Washington. "But if this campaign continues to be about Vietnam and the past, I don't think he's going to do so fine. I think it's a little dicey."
As they packed their bags for the trip to New York, several convention delegates and GOP operatives said they had hoped Bush would be comfortably ahead of the Democratic challenger by now. They still like Bush's chances against Kerry, the party faithful said, but only if Bush takes full advantage of the convention spotlight. They offered a wide range of advice, including:
— Condemn Kerry's 19-year record in the Senate, and perhaps even his stint as lieutenant governor and prosecutor in Massachusetts.
— Remind voters of Bush's performance after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which produced the highest approval ratings of his presidency.
— Reach beyond his conservative base to appeal to independent-minded undecided voters.
— Defend his first-term record, but not so much that it overshadows his vision for a second term.
The good news for the White House is the convention script hits each of those marks. The bad news is that the advice reflects a concern among Republicans that Bush is more vulnerable than they would like — certainly more exposed to a Nov. 2 defeat than they ever thought possible before the Iraq war.
"There has been a lot of noise out there, with Iraq and even this Vietnam stuff," said Terry Grosenheider, a delegate from Madison, Wis. "He hasn't been able to talk about his accomplishments or, more importantly, his solutions to the problems people are facing."
Sig Rogich, a Republican strategist in Nevada, said Bush has to take the fight to Kerry.
"I don't think the campaign has done the best job of defining John Kerry yet," Rogich said. "I think the best is yet to come."
Rogich said Kerry's record in the Senate is fair game, as well as the Dukakis-Kerry administration scorecard from Massachusetts. In 1998, Vice President George H.W. Bush used the state furlough system and a polluted Boston Harbor against Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee whose lieutenant governor was Kerry.
"All those same issues might have some significance this election cycle," Rogich said.
Many voters have soured on the war in Iraq, and their discontent has hurt Bush's approval ratings. With the death toll of U.S. troops nearing 1,000, several of the Republicans said Bush's political team doesn't realize how angry and anxious Americans are over Iraq. Each death dominates local news, often in a battleground state. Bush acknowledged Thursday in an interview that he miscalculated the postwar scenario in Iraq.
Still, the president comes to his convention with some wind at his back. Polls show he is tied or slightly ahead of Kerry, who focused his nominating convention on his valorous Vietnam War record. The tactic helped Kerry narrow Bush's advantage on who would best protect the nation, but polls show those gains have eroded amid unproven allegations, leveled by a Republican-funded veterans group, that the Democrat exaggerated his combat record.
Several Republicans said they'd rather see the issue go away.
"My hope is that, come Monday, the Vietnam thing will be submerged and voters will be focusing on the president and his agenda," said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist in Washington.
"Enough," said Allen Miller, a delegate from Florida. "We've dealt with this for three weeks. I served in Vietnam. That's not the issue here. What George Bush did in the Texas Air National Guard isn't the issue. What's the issue is what the president will do for the country if he gets four more years."
"My gut is we're probably a little late" unveiling Bush's agenda, the 57-year-old financial planner said. "Would it have been wise to do it in March? Nope. People weren't paying attention."
Bush advisers say the president will outline new policies for a second term during his nominating address Thursday, then will spend the next week or so explaining and promoting them in greater detail. It's a model adopted in 1996 by President Clinton, who produced a poll-tested package of small initiatives designed to appeal to moderate and independents voters.