The Republican Party held its 2004 national convention from August 30 to September 2 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The party officially nominated George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for re-election to the presidency and vice presidency. Due to their incumbent status, and lack of a serious challenger, the Convention focused on Bush’s record during his first term. Republicans tried to draw attention to the president’s record as a unifying figure, particularly on issues of national security and foreign policy. The convention’s theme was “Fulfilling America’s Promise by Building a Safer World and a More Hopeful America.”
The Republican National Committee selected New York City, the site of the September 11th attacks, to emphasize Bush’s national security credentials. According to tradition, the Republicans, as the incumbent party, had the privilege of hosting their convention second. This, and the need to avoid television competition with the Summer Olympics, allowed the party to hold the convention later in the summer, only two weeks before the third anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Television, as it had been for the last half-century, was an important consideration in planning the convention. The major networks only offered one hour of primetime coverage for each of the four nights. The Democrats had not managed the hour properly during their convention, and the Republicans carefully organized and choreographed their evening program to maximize their star power and stay on message.
The convention’s first day focused on remembering the aftermath of September 11th, and the party chose Senator John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the day’s key speakers. McCain had strong national security credentials, and had been Bush’s most significant opponent during the Republican nomination process in 2000. Giuliani, a supporter of more liberal social policies than the president, had become known as “America’s Mayor” for his leadership of New York following 9/11. Both men were ardent supporters of Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks, and emphasized their common ground with the president. They identified him as a unifying figure in the aftermath of national tragedy.
Events on the convention’s second day drew attention to Bush’s domestic policies, specifically the program of “compassionate conservatism” he had campaigned on in 2000. Convention speakers highlighted Bush’s faith-based initiatives, health care, and education policy (centered around the No Child Left Behind Act). Speakers included Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, both African Americans. The prime time speakers were California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Laura Bush. Alluding to Paige and Steele, Schwarzenegger described the Republican Party as one of inclusion and opportunity based on economic liberty.
On the third day, the RNC unanimously nominated Bush and Cheney, and turned its attention on the Democratic Party and its nominees John Kerry and John Edwards. The day’s key speakers were Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, who delivered the keynote address, and Vice President Cheney. Miller, a Democrat, gave an emphatic address, charging the members of his party with a “manic obsession to bring down our commander-in-chief,” and having been “motivated more by partisan politics than by national security.” He focused on Kerry’s voting record, listing a series of weapons programs that were supporting soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan that the nominee had opposed over his career. Miller was the only speaker at the convention who targeted the Democratic ticket, and he did so with fervor. Miller’s emphasis on Kerry’s Senate term set the stage for Republican attacks during the fall campaign. These attacks would counter Kerry’s military record, which the Democrats had emphasized during their convention. Cheney’s address also focused on national security. He re-emphasized his own credentials as an experienced aide to the president, and highlighted Bush’s ability to act decisively under pressure.
On the final day, President Bush gave his acceptance speech. New York governor George Pataki introduced Bush, and described the president as a man of faith, suited for the extraordinary times in which he served. Pataki openly contrasted Bush’s leadership with Kerry’s record, calling the Massachusetts senator “a Flipper” on issues. On a platform designed to place him in the center of the Garden (the “man in the arena” as his introductory video described it), Bush spoke of the difficult decisions he had made in the aftermath to 9/11 and in the invasion of Iraq. Building on his reputation as a man of principle and action, he told the audience, “Even when we don’t agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand.” He also turned his attention to the future, using his “compassionate conservatism” as a way forward for the nation. Bush declared that his campaign and second term would be committed to economic and political liberty both abroad and at home.
The Convention drew large crowds of protesters. However, participants soon found that the Department of Homeland Security had placed significant restrictions on their protesting. As they had done with the Democratic convention, the Department of Homeland Security had designated the convention a National Security Special Event. Local and federal agencies used their extensive policing power to restrict protesting and arrested over 1,800 people. Several protestors were able to sneak into the convention to disrupt speakers throughout, including twice during Bush’s acceptance speech.
The convention was a success for Bush. Gallup polls saw a post-convention bounce that pushed his approval rating above 50 percent, and increased his lead over Kerry on the issues of terrorism, the war in Iraq, and on which man was a “strong and decisive leader.” Various polls showed Bush reaching a four to six point lead. One poll from Newsweek gave him an 11-point edge. Though the race would tighten, Bush had effectively used the convention to re-emphasize his record, highlight the differences between himself and Kerry, and set the stage for his general election campaign.
James W. Ceaser and Andrew E. Busch, Red Over Blue: The 2004 Elections and American Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005).
Rachel L. Holloway, “Political Conventions of 2004: A Study in Character and Contrast,” in Denton, Jr., Robert E., ed. The 2004 Presidential Campaign: A Communication Perspective (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005).