'War president' casts Iraq as part of terror fight
Polls point to nation divided on merits of invasion
By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau
CNN's Jeanne Meserve on New York police and convention protests.
CNN's Kelly Wallace on the high stakes of the GOP convention.
CNN's Jeanne Moos on protesters at New York's Plaza Hotel.
Location: New York's Madison Square Garden, seats up to 19,763
Estimated attendees: 50,000
Estimated budget: $91 million, according to NYC Host Committee 2004
Delegates: 2,509 (2,344 alternates)
Estimated volunteers: 15,000
Hotel rooms used: 18,000+ in more than 40 hotels
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- George W. Bush heads into the Republican National Convention as a self-described "war president," presiding over a nation altered considerably from the one he inherited four years ago.
With roughly 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and no withdrawal date in sight, Bush's role as commander in chief promises to loom large in the mind of voters, who according to polls are worried about that military commitment.
To some degree, experts say this election is a referendum on the U.S. role on Iraq. (Special Report: America Votes 2004, the Republican convention)
"In 50 years, 2004 will be known as the Iraq election," said CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.
On the campaign trail, Bush has cast the invasion of Iraq as part of the broader war on terrorism, and he has not wavered in his stated belief that that "America and the world are safer" with Saddam Hussein deposed and behind bars. (Today in Iraq: Al-Sadr militiamen leave shrine)
In his speeches, Bush lumps the invasion of Iraq with the strike against Afghanistan, launched after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
"Nobody wants to be the war president," Bush said in a campaign stop earlier this month in Niceville, Florida. "People want to be the peace president. People want to be able to say, 'Gosh, the world is peaceful.' But that's not what happened under my watch. The country changed on September the 11th, 2001, and it's vital for the president to clearly see the world way it is."
The four-day nominating convention offers Republicans a chance to highlight what they view as successes in Iraq and tout Bush's stewardship of the nation at a time when American soldiers remain in harm's way.
The convention theme -- which includes an emphasis on "building a safer world" -- underscores the GOP's intent to accentuate the positive in any discussion of Iraq and keep it firmly tied to the broader global fight against terrorism.
"He's just going to be talking about the good stuff," Schneider said.
Schneider said he would be surprised to see Bush talk about "any open-ended commitments" in Iraq. Instead, Bush will emphasize the freedom for many Iraqis that followed the fall of Saddam -- despite the violence from insurgents who oppose the U.S. presence in the country.
"It will be a festival of liberation," Schneider said of the convention. Some political observers believe Republicans will likely feature the testimonials of some Iraqis.
"I would be surprised if there's not time set aside to tell that story," said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Still, Iraq is not a home-run issue for Bush.
While Bush has steadfastly defended the invasion, polls show the nation is divided over whether invading Iraq was the right move, whether there is a legitimate connection to the war on terrorism and who is best able to handle the situation now.
For example, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Thursday found that 48 percent of respondents thought it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq.
In an earlier CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll from July, a bare majority -- 51 percent -- believed Iraq was part of the war on terrorism, compared to 47 percent who disputed that notion.
The poll released Thursday found that 49 percent of respondents believe Bush would do a better job on Iraq, compared to 43 percent for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Polls from earlier this summer found that Kerry held a slight edge on that question. (Results of a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted August 23-25)
Bush's stance on Iraq has not wavered, despite the fact that stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction have not been found in the country. In the months leading up to the war, the Bush administration had repeatedly pointed to the existence of such an arsenal as a key reason military action was warranted.
In recent campaign stump speeches, Bush has addressed that issued head-on.
"You know, we didn't find the stockpiles we thought we would find," Bush told a crowd in Wisconsin earlier this month. "But I want to remind you, [Saddam Hussein] had the capability of making weapons. ... Knowing what I know today, I would have made the same decision."
In their handling of Iraq as a political issue, Republicans highlight what they describe as inconsistencies in Kerry's stance.
Kerry voted in October 2002 to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq if necessary, but he later voted against a spending bill for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kerry did, however, support a rival measure that would have tied the defense spending to reversing Bush's tax cuts for wealthier Americans.
In his speeches, Bush has made one thing very clear -- he harbors no doubts about his own decisions.
That professed certainty, experts predict, will be on display in New York as Bush claims his party's nomination and makes his case for a second term.
"The president has made it very clear: no looking back, no regrets. He feels this was the right thing to do," said Stephen Hess, a government scholar at the liberal Brookings Institution, another Washington think tank.
Voters have the last word on November 2.