The Republicans grasp essentials

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 9, 2004

Commentary by Dick Morris

No wonder Rudy Giuliani, Ed Koch, Mayor Bloomberg and Sen. John McCain brought the Republican Convention to its feet with their stirring pleas to fight terror and re-elect President Bush.

The speakers all grasped the essential reality of this year’s presidential contest: If the election is about foreign policy Bush will win. But if it is about domestic policy, Kerry will prevail.

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This central strategic fact is evident from an analysis of the most recent Fox News poll (conducted Aug. 24-25). The survey, which found the race tied, shows graphically what is at work behind the data.

Asked what is the most important issue facing America, 37 percent cited various foreign-policy problems: Iraq, the war, terrorism, defense or national security. Those who listed these issues as more important voted for Bush by 57-34. (Bush’s lead was greater among those who cited terror or security than among those who cited Iraq and the war as their primary issues).

But among the 48 percent who said that such domestic issues as the economy, jobs, health care and education were primary, the vote was a mirror image. They backed Kerry by 55-33.

Neither campaign will be able to do much to close the gap on the other side’s issues, nor can either candidate likely do a lot to widen his lead on his own issues. But Bush can do a great deal to make terror and foreign policy the dominant questions as Election Day nears.

The winner will be determined by what is the issue. Lingering beneath the relatively even division of the nation into two partisan camps lurks a consensus that Bush would be better for terrorism issues and Kerry better in normal times.

So the goal of the GOP convention has to be to explain to voters why terror is and must be the all-consuming issue. Against this necessity, the choice of New York City for the convention makes all the sense in the world. The list of speakers can only reinforce the message that we need Bush to see us through the period of danger in which we now dwell.

The fight between Bush and Kerry is ultimately a fight for subject matter. Anything about foreign policy – Iraq, Iran, North Korea, al Qaeda, homeland security, terror alerts, defense spending and the like helps Bush.

Even the focus on Kerry’s Vietnam record – whether the positive version he showcased in Boston or the negative spin that the swift-boat folks have put out recently – all helps Bush. If it is about foreign policy, it helps the president. Period.

Kerry can only win if he can change the subject. And a combination of Bush’s campaign and the perilous reality all around us can stop him from doing so.

Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. Contact him via e-mail at