GOP assails Kerry in convention opening

NEW YORK -- Republicans belittled Democratic Sen. John Kerry as a shift-in-the-wind campaigner unworthy of the White House on Monday, opening their national convention four miles from the site of America's worst terrorist attack. "We need George Bush more than ever," said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

"We need a leader with the experience to make the tough decisions and the resolve to stick with them," added Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who called the invasion of Iraq "necessary, achievable and noble."

The delegates met at Madison Square Garden, not far from where the World Trade Center twin towers once stood -- gathering under security so tight that umbrellas were banned from the hall as potential weapons.

With polls showing Bush's leadership in the war on terror a political strength, a parade of speakers repeatedly used their turn at the podium to summon memories of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Timmy is my hero. I am honored to share him with you," said Tara Stackpole, widow of a firefighter who went into the burning towers but never came out. "Just as I am proud to lend America my oldest son, Kevin, who is headed to Iraq in December with his Navy unit."

In a prelude to the evening's political oratory, delegates ratified Bush's unflinchingly conservative re-election platform. It, too, lauded his response to the terrorist attacks, declaring, "The president's most solemn duty is to protect our country. George W. Bush has kept that charge."

Envisioning a new "ownership era," it also endorsed additional tax relief and major changes to Social Security allowing individuals to use a portion of their payroll taxes to establish personal retirement accounts.

The platform calls for constitutional amendments to ban gay marriages and abortions. It also expressed opposition to civil unions for gays.

Reaching out to Democrats

McCain and Giuliani were the evening's principal prime-time speakers, a reflection of their ability to command political support outside the president's conservative base.

Both men took pains to reach out to Democrats. And while Giuliani ridiculed Kerry repeatedly, McCain offered no criticism of the president's Democratic rival, his longtime Senate colleague and a man he calls a friend. But he gave a full-throated endorsement of Bush as a wartime president.

Critics of the invasion of Iraq believe incorrectly that Bush faced a choice between the status quo and war, McCain said. "But there was no status quo to be left alone," he said. "It was between a war and a graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our critics abroad. Not our political opponents."

Since the day terrorists attacked, McCain said of Bush, "He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield. And neither will we."

Giuliani, who achieved national prominence for his stewardship of the city in the hours and days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said that since that day, "President Bush has remained rock solid. It doesn't matter how he is demonized."

By contrast, he said Kerry has switched his position on the 1991 Persian Gulf War, on an $87 billion funding bill for postwar Afghanistan and Iraq, and on the security barrier the Israeli government is erecting.

"John Kerry has made it the rule to change his position, rather than the exception," Giuliani said in remarks that were designed to undercut Kerry's claim that he is ready to take command in an era of terrorism.

There was more as Republicans sought to shake the claims that Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, made at his own convention earlier this summer in Boston.

"Kerry is weak on war and wrong on taxes," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Police barricades

Officials mustered a security force of thousands in the area around the hall, part of an effort to thwart any attempt at an attack. A helicopter circled the skies over the arena, while police barricades made an 18-square-block surrounding the Garden off-limits to most vehicles.

Inside the hall, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne were ushered to their seats in late morning, in time to hear his name and the president's placed in nomination for another term. "Four more years" the delegates shouted in unison.

Polls show Bush in a tough race for re-election, and Kerry has been helped by surveys showing that at least a strong plurality of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. At the same time, the president receives high marks from the public for his decisiveness and leadership. And recent attacks by an outside group of veterans on Kerry's military service have coincided with polls suggesting increased momentum for the incumbent.