Republicans running scared.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Sept. 2 2004 12:46 AM

Running Scared

Guess what? Republicans fear the other guy more than they like their own.

NEW YORK—One of the most striking things about watching the Republican National Convention from inside Madison Square Garden has been the lack of enthusiasm among the delegates on the floor. When they formally, and unanimously, nominated George W. Bush as their party's presidential nominee Wednesday at the conclusion of the roll call of the states, the delegates failed to muster much applause for their action. "We can do better than that," complained Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele from the podium. "Come on now, bring it on for the president." The delegates dutifully applauded some more, but they still weren't very loud, and Steele still seemed disappointed.

But by the end of Wednesday night, the delegates were fired up. What got them going? Speeches by Zell Miller and Dick Cheney arguing that John Kerry can't be trusted on matters of national security, that he's weak, indecisive, and open to influence from foreign leaders. "Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending," Miller scoffed, and the delegates booed. During Cheney's speech, delegates joyously mocked Kerry by chanting "flip flop, flip flop," and they booed the idea that Kerry even aspired to be the country's commander in chief. The knock on Democrats this year is supposed to be that they hate the other guy more than they love their own. Based on this convention, it sure looks like the same is true of Republicans.

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Tonight confirmed what I suspected before the Democratic convention began: In violation of the normal rules of politics, this year's election is a referendum on the challenger rather than a referendum on the incumbent. There's a general sense that a change in presidents would be a good thing, but the country is taking that decision more seriously than it would in peacetime, and voters aren't certain, despite their disapproval of President Bush, that a President Kerry would be an improvement.

That's why this was the night the Republicans did their convention right. During the first two days of this convention, the prime-time speakers gave eloquent speeches, but they didn't hammer Kerry enough, with the exception of Rudy Giuliani's effective pummeling of Kerry's reputation for inconsistency. Tonight, Miller and Cheney more than made up for the oversight. My guess is that Republicans won't be able to convince voters that Bush has been a wonderful president, but they just might be able to convince voters that Kerry would be a terrible one.

There is the question, though, of whether anything that happens at this convention will make much of a difference in the race. As a rule, political conventions are aimed at the great mass of undecided voters who typically determine the outcome of elections, and this convention has been no different. But what's interesting about the Republicans' decision to follow those rules and hold a convention that appeals to swing voters is that Karl Rove has already announced that 2004 is a year that the normal rules don't apply.

This is supposed to be a "base" election, not a "swing" one. Rove believes that there are more votes to be found among the conservatives who didn't turn out to vote in 2000 than among the minuscule pool of undecided voters. In search of those stay-at-home voters, President Bush and Vice President Cheney almost exclusively visit heavily Republican areas in swing states.

Democrats fear that the Bush-Cheney campaign may be able to pull off a national version of what Ralph Reed did for Saxby Chambliss in Georgia two years ago, when Reed turned out droves of new evangelical voters who made the difference against Max Cleland. The race in Missouri provides a good example of what Republicans are trying to do. Earlier this year I spoke to Lloyd Smith, who is advising the Bush-Cheney campaign in the Show-Me State this year. Smith said the Bush-Cheney campaign will win the state by going to precincts that had as few as 500 or 600 voters in them four years ago and finding another 100 voters in each one to vote for the president.

In 2000, those stay-at-home voters didn't like George W. Bush enough (or hate Al Gore enough) to be motivated to get out to the polls and vote. Based on Bush's record, my guess is that they don't like him any more now. Love of Bush won't win the Republicans the presidency. Fear of Kerry might.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.