NEW YORK – Abortion-rights protesters and the first Republican delegates descended on President Bush's heavily fortified convention city Saturday as campaign officials said their boss would use the nomination spotlight to defend his foreign polices and offer a second-term agenda for health care, education and job training.
"He believes it's important for a candidate to talk about what he's done and, most important, where he wants to lead," said adviser Karen Hughes (search), aboard Bush's campaign bus in Ohio. "The speech is very forward-looking. It talks about what another four years of a Bush presidency would look like."
Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry (search) said most voters won't look kindly on another term for the Republican. "For the last four years, we've had a dark cloud over Washington," Kerry told supporters on an overcast day in Washington state. "We're going to get rid of it on Nov. 2."
With his decorated combat record in question, Kerry said, "I'm in a fighting mood," and a campaign ally chided Bush for serving stateside in the Texas Air National Guard (search) while others fought in Vietnam.
In an interview, Bush told NBC's "Today" that Kerry "going to Vietnam was more heroic than my flying fighter jets. He was in harm's way and I wasn't. On the other hand, I served my country. Had my unit been called up, I would have gone."
Pre-convention polls showed the race evenly split, though the challenger has lost ground since his convention in Boston a month ago. The four-day Republican convention opens Monday.
Bush campaigned deliberately through battleground states en route to an overwhelmingly Democratic convention city — fertile ground for protests against his foreign and domestic policies. Thousands of abortion-rights activists marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, 10 abreast in a protest a half-mile long. The night before, 264 people were arrested for disorderly conduct in a bicycle protest past Madison Square Garden. New York police said 25 people were arrested Saturday for various convention-related incidents, bringing the three-day total to 311.
The convention site is less than five miles from Ground Zero, where two hijacked planes destroyed the Twin Towers, killing 2,749 people and catapulting the nation into war. Bush's approval ratings soared as he led the nation in mourning, then ordered troops into Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban regime and begin the search for Osama bin Laden.
Three years later, the terrorist leader is still at large, and the U.S. military is fighting an unpopular war in Iraq. As the death toll of U.S. troops nears 1,000, Bush hopes to persuade voters that the invasion of Iraq has made the nation safer.
"The power of liberty cannot be stopped," the president told supporters in Lima, Ohio, borrowing a line from his work-in-progress acceptance address. "Freedom is peace. Free societies are not going to harbor al-Qaida."
But even free societies must be diligent. Security precautions here showed it.
Police were out in force guarding New York roadways, bridges, tunnels and ports, while vehicle restrictions on an 18-square-block area around the Garden snarled traffic in a city already congested.
Police said they might have headed off disaster as they arrested a U.S. citizen and a Pakistani national in an alleged plot to bomb a subway station in midtown Manhattan.
Inside the hall, the transformation from sports and entertainment center to convention site was complete, with a custom-made podium filling one side of the hall and thousands of balloons above.
A smattering of delegates had arrived midweek for platform hearings, and scores more were making their way to the city. They won't starve for food or attention. Among the parties planned was a huge gathering at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an intimate affair in an apartment high above Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park.
Bush arrives in his convention city Wednesday after an eight-state campaign swing. He'll spend one night in New York before bolting for the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Ohio and beyond shortly after accepting the GOP nomination.
Hughes said Bush will argue that the world and the nation are changing rapidly in the new century, forcing U.S. leaders to adapt. While a desire for stability guided foreign policy for decades, "now we recognize that only when our values and beliefs in freedom are able to take hold will we see our security improve."
Campaigning with Kerry in Washington state, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark said Bush failed to act on terrorism before Sept. 11 and should be replaced. "George Bush is an incompetent commander in chief," said Clark, a former presidential candidate.
The domestic terrain is changing, too, with people constantly shifting jobs and women flooding the work force, Hughes said. "So he'll talk about skills and training and education and portability of things like health care and the ability to own a piece of your retirement."
Hughes declined to give details, but other Bush advisers said he was expected to outline new initiatives on health care and post-secondary education. He will renew calls for tax simplification and allowing people to privatize part of their Social Security benefits, but is not expected to offer new initiatives in those areas.
Individually, none of the measures will be colossal, aides said, but collectively it will make a bold package that they argued will appeal to moderates, many of whom have grown wary of Bush's conservative views and the Iraq war.
Looking to the fall, campaign chairman Marc Racicot said he couldn't find any fault with an independent commission's proposal to sponsor three presidential debates and one vice presidential session. Kerry has accepted the proposal. Bush has not.
Bush comes to his convention with a bit of momentum in a race so evenly divided that the smallest movement could cause major ripples. A Time magazine poll suggests that Bush has gained ground on Kerry on the economy, Iraq and the question of who could best lead the nation through a difficult time.
But a potential problem loomed for Bush. In Washington, the FBI was investigating whether a Pentagon analyst fed secret materials to Israel.