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What Will the Republican Party Do in New York?

The Democratic National Convention in Boston was a lovefest. Whatever the divisions within the party — the Democratic Leadership Council vs. the AFL-CIO, for instance, or Midwestern and Southern moderates vs. coastal liberals — the Democrats acted as if they were one big happy family. [IMGCAP(1)]

Liberals didn’t bat an eye when prominent speakers in Boston talked about killing terrorists, enacting new tax cuts and adding troops to the military. And moderates held their tongues rather than express doubts about Sen. John Kerry, a veteran Massachusetts liberal with a record that wouldn’t ordinarily sell in Missouri, Ohio or the South.

The Democratic Party — united, optimistic about the future of the country, excited about their ticket’s prospects in the fall, and “on message” about values — offered the kind of moderate message that should appeal to swing voters.

True, post-convention polls showed only a limited “bounce” for Kerry (or none at all) in the presidential ballot test. But all of the numbers indicate that the Democratic presidential nominee has improved his fundamental positioning for the crucial fall period.

Given the public’s continued feeling that the country is headed off on the wrong track, what do you do if you are Republican strategist Karl Rove, Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman and President Bush?

Do you have the firepower to answer or even improve upon the Democratic performance once you get to Madison Square Garden? What approach do you take? Do you attack the Democratic ticket head-on, or soft-pedal your attacks as a number of Democratic speakers did, for fear of coming off as too negative and mean-spirited?

The GOP prime-time lineup is strong, with the likes of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Vice President Cheney and Bush. They have experience (and intangibles) that the Democrats can’t match.

But while the Republican lineup is formidable, they can’t match the Democrats in pure speaking ability.

The Democratic lineup — former President Bill Clinton, Illinois Senate hopeful Barack Obama, vice presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Kerry — featured four terrific public speakers, and all met or exceeded expectations. They proved themselves the political version of the 1927 Yankees, whose “Murderers’ Row” featured Lou Gehrig (a .373 batting average and 175 runs batted in), Babe Ruth (a .356 average with 60 home runs), Bob Muesel (a .337 average with 103 RBIs) and Earle Combs (a .356 average and a league-leading 231 hits).

A question now for Republicans is whether they attack Kerry as a liberal or continue with their flip-flopper charge.

In one sense, this question presents a false choice: Almost certainly, speakers in New York will do both. But the flip-flopper message might be the better one, especially since Democrats spent their convention projecting Kerry as a fiscal moderate who is a strong supporter of the military and of “values.”

If Republicans can convince voters that Kerry is not what he pretends to be, they could damage the Senator’s overall standing — and regain the considerable advantage once held by Bush on the all-important quality of leadership. And leadership is a key component in the fight against terror.

The Democrats’ prime-time speakers in Boston rarely attacked Bush by name, preferring to criticize him more indirectly. Since Republicans need to compare Kerry’s recent rhetoric with his record during the past 20 years, they will almost certainly have to be more pointed in their criticism of the challenger.

Despite this, Republicans ought to avoid anything resembling a personal attack, and they should use humor to soften their attacks.

On the question of unity, the GOP will have a hard time presenting the same unified appearance that prevailed at the Democratic convention.

Unlike Democratic liberals and moderates this cycle, Republican conservatives and moderates are not playing down their differences; they seem more interested in sending a message to the president not to take them for granted. And members of the media seem more likely to hunt for Republican divisions than they did with Democrats in Boston. Look for reporters and analysts to play up whatever Republican differences surface at the convention.

Most observers (myself included) have been saying for months that the Democratic convention would be more important to Kerry than the GOP convention would be to Bush, since voters still didn’t know the Massachusetts Senator while everyone has an opinion about Bush.

But in New York, Bush still has an opportunity to make his case in a straightforward, uncluttered way about what he has accomplished and why he would be a better leader than Kerry for the next four years. And while I don’t expect the president to get any bigger bounce than Kerry received, I’ve also grown to expect the unexpected. And that makes the Republican convention worth the wait.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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