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Published: 8/1/2004

Republicans can learn from their rivals

The Democrats held the country s attention for all of July, thanks to a well-orchestrated roll-out of John F. Kerry s running mate followed by a well-orchestrated convention marking the nomination of the Massachusetts senator. The Democrats enter the general election with a sense of determination, though it was hard to watch last week s proceedings without wondering what happened to the festive, electric air of Democratic politics of years past.

The party that holds the White House traditionally holds its convention last, giving it the advantage of, among other things, the last word. But it also has a chance to learn some lessons from the challengers, and as the GOP prepares for its month in the sunshine the Democrats, on buses and on the air, will try to add some clouds there are lessons the Republicans can learn from their rivals. Here are some of them:

You can t hide your heroes. Both parties spent the summer worried about their presidential prospects, in part because they worried their men each in his way tentative and lacking in self-confidence would be overshadowed by mythic men of the past. In truth, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are larger-than-life characters, and it is important to remember that while Mr. Reagan may be a bigger figure in history, Mr. Clinton only the third Democratic president in the 20th century to be re-elected is every bit as big a figure in his party s pantheon.

All summer, Republicans have worried that the long shadow of Mr. Reagan, who died this spring, would diminish Mr. Bush. Indeed, one of the challenges of the New York convention will be how to commemorate the Reagan legacy while reminding the delegates (and the television viewers) that the business at hand is to renominate George W. Bush.

There are risks here; the long tribute to John F. Kennedy remains, along with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party rebellion, the most poignant moment of Lyndon B. Johnson s Atlantic City convention in 1964. Lucky for him that he ran against Sen. Barry Goldwater, who won only his own state of Arizona plus five others in a band across the Deep South that November.

The Democrats bathed in a warm wash of nostalgia Monday night. Bill Clinton impeached by a vengeful Congress, impaired by his own failures, imperfect by his own admission nonetheless roused the party. He gave a terrific speech. He made the Democrats feel terrific. He reminded them why they were in Boston, and reminded them of the consequences of losing power.

So expect a big Reagan presence in New York. The Republicans, so embattled as they battle for re-election, need the lift of a legend. To paraphrase a slogan from another GOP presidential campaign, Reagan s the one.

You can t hide your supporters. The Democrats did their best in Boston to portray themselves as the very souls of moderation, veritable Babbitts for the ballot, as unthreatening as a July breeze at a Boston beach. That was inside the hall. On television and in the streets the more strident voices couldn t be silenced.

The Republicans tried this very tactic four years ago. Their convention was a feast of diversity, a four-day tribute to tolerance, a conclave of the compassionate who barely and rarely admitted to being conservative. They were no more persuasive in Philadelphia four years ago than the Democrats were in Boston four days ago.

No matter. The GOP is almost certain to try again. Look at the roster at the rostrum: former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki of New York, who are as in sync with Mr. Bush as Nelson Rockefeller was with Goldwater 40 years ago; Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who ran against Mr. Bush and has never come to peace with the notion that Mr. Bush won the nomination and then the White House; Education Secretary Rod Paige, who is black; Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who is a Democrat, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, who supports abortion and gay rights.

That s quite a lineup, but you will forgive the social and economic conservatives if they wonder whether they re at the Democratic National Convention of 1956. They will not feel at home in their own party. They will make their voices heard, even if not at prime time.

You can t hide your record. Mr. Kerry has discovered that the oppo research team the Republicans have assembled will keep him honest, even if the attacks aren t always honorable. But Mr. Kerry, who has learned a lesson or two himself, is no Michael Dukakis, his revered mentor. Mr. Dukakis didn t fight back, and he is refreshingly candid in defeat about that. Mr. Kerry will.

But the new Democrats will do more than respond to Republican broadsides and bromides. They plan to attack Mr. Bush on his own turf. Mr. Kerry is in his fourth term in the Senate and thus burdened with a record, but Mr. Bush is in his fourth year in the White House and no less burdened.

So after the Republicans have their moment, they ll also have their moment of testing. The people who asked Mr. Kerry about why he changed his mind on funding postwar reconstruction in Iraq will themselves be asked why Mr. Bush changed his mind on nation-building. There will be questions about health and safety regulations, the environment, and civil liberties. As always, the questions will be crisper than the answers.

The funny thing about American campaigns is that they begin with candidates on the offensive and end with candidates on the defensive. Mr. Kerry was on the offensive about the Iraq war until he won the nomination, for example, and now he s on the defensive. Mr. Bush was on the offensive about taxes but soon he, too, will be on the defensive. There s no high ground in American politics, only ground that s hard to defend.

There are lots of ways to predict who prevails in an American presidential campaign. Indeed, it s sometimes a question of the last man standing. You can figure out whom that will be by determining who will be the last man on the offensive. The shorthand for that person is this: the winner.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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