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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 September, 2004, 08:00 GMT 09:00 UK
Campaign column: Bush's tactical victory

By Tom Carver
BBC correspondent in New York

Delegates at the Republican convention in New York city
Delegates showed their support for the Republican message
George Bush is a master at disguising the punch.

In 2000, he fooled Al Gore into underestimating his talent as a politician, causing Mr Gore to overreach.

This time, he has forced John Kerry to have the wrong conversation with the voters.

When he should have been telling the voters his plan for the future, Mr Kerry has been spending his time talking about the past, believing that Vietnam was the way to establish his credibility.

Consequently, when the Republicans raised doubts about Mr Kerry's service in Vietnam last month, he had nothing to fall back on.

Money talk

This gave George Bush an opening at the Republican convention.

He was able to show the breadth and width of his experience in office.

And in the absence of any detailed picture from Mr Kerry himself, Mr Bush filled in the blanks on Mr Kerry's political record sheet.

He criticised Mr Kerry for a policy of "expanding government", saying that Mr Kerry wanted more than two trillion dollars in new federal spending.

John Kerry
John Kerry has left himself vulnerable to Republican attacks

George Bush neatly glossed over the fact that he himself has expanded federal spending by 29% since coming to office and sent the budget plummeting into the red.

The "tax and spend" attack on Mr Kerry works partly because that is what many Americans assume Democrats do, despite the fact that former President Bill Clinton successfully balanced his budget.

But it also works because Mr Kerry created the opening for the Republicans to attack.

Morals on show

The Republican convention was a virtuoso display of disciplined message.

Every image and every speaker was carefully choreographed to reinforce in the voters' minds the idea of George Bush as a steadfast, principled, say-what-you-mean-and-mean-what-you-say kind of leader.

Not a moment of doubt or hesitation. No mention of the missing weapons of mass destruction. Or the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq, a year after major hostilities were supposed to have ended.

Iraq was portrayed as part and parcel of the war of terrorism, and a war of moral necessity, not choice.

George W Bush
Bush has taken the lead in opinion polls

The Republican faithful held up banners that read: "A safer world".

Did this mean that Mr Bush had created a safer world? Or was going to create a safer world? It was not clear. And it did not matter. What people saw on TV was the phrase and George Bush.

A key difference between John Kerry and George Bush is that Mr Kerry is trying to find a coherent philosophy that fits the world. President Bush has his philosophy and is happy to let the world fit in around it.

Losing momentum

Walking among the party faithful after his speech, the main reason people gave for liking Mr Bush is because they think of him as principled and resolute.

By contrast, they think Mr Kerry is a vacillating flip-flopper.

It is a powerful message, which certainly resonates with the party faithful. The unknown question is whether it works for the undecided voters, who may well decide this election.

In these troubling times, will Americans prefer someone as absolutist and unwavering as George Bush? Or will they go for someone with a more nuanced approach? Excellent arguments can be made for both sides.

But the first major poll since the Republican convention shows Mr Bush 11 points ahead of Mr Kerry - a huge bounce.

John Kerry is going to have to work very hard if he is going to push back the Republican momentum of the last month.

Previous campaign columns:

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