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'Americans first, last and always'

Last updated on: August 31, 2004 22:37 IST

Around 8 pm, Monday August 30, a CNN online poll posed the question: Are the two main speakers of the night representative of the Republican Party's position.

Fifteen per cent said yes; a massive 85 per cent said no.

'Only the press box had dry eyes'

Three hours -- and numerous standing ovations -- later, those two speakers, Arizona Senator John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had negated the Democratic charges, provided President George W Bush with the most rousing of endorsements, and lit fires under the thousands of assembled delegates at the Madison Square Garden for night one of the convention.

The choice of these two speakers -- one of whom has publicly disagreed with President Bush on the conduct of the war in Iraq and other issues of national security; the other a man who has been on the wrong side
of the party agenda on ticklish social issues such as abortion -- has been hotly debated, even among journalists.

There was even a tendency to contrast the McCain-Giuliani one-two act with the electrifying Hillary and Bill Clinton opening act in Boston, at the Democratic convention, a month ago.

By 11.20 -- some 20 minutes beyond scheduled close, when Giuliani finally wound up an oration that was part demagoguery, part clever debate, part slashing attack on the opposition and all off-Broadway theatre -- there were no more doubts; merely, a pervasive admiration among departing delegates and guests for the way in which the two speakers had undercut the Democrats, coupled with an anticipation of what the next three days could bring.

An unintended sidelight of the show was the fact that McCain and Giuliani are both being spoken off as potential contenders for the Republican nomination in 2008 -- interesting, but in context of the night irrelevant.

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McCain was more Brutus than Mark Antony; more reason than emotion. And it worked. His brief was clearly to use his immense stature as a decorated vet, and his acceptability among the liberals (this, after all, was the man no less than John Kerry reportedly wanted for his running mate), to shroud the war in Iraq with the imprimatur of an unavoidable inevitability.

McCain began with a quote from "a great American from the other party", Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations, much is given; from others, much is
expected. This generation has a date with destiny."

In swift strokes, McCain recalled the moments immediately after 9/11, when all America was united with one common purpose. Deliberately taking on Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards' pet refrain of two Americas, McCain said, "On that day we were not two countries, we were Americans, united in one purpose, determined to achieve one common goal."

The Senator then confronted a key Democratic charge -- that the war, especially in Iraq, had been pursued without concern for world opinion.

America, he pointed out, had always gone to the support of those in need, it was only fair to expect reciprocity in the hour of America's own need. "As we have been a good friend to others in moments of peril, so we expect their solidarity with us in our struggle."

Translated: If France and Germany and other European nations baulked at America going to war in Iraq, that was attributable to the ingratitude of those nations, and not a critique on the legitimacy of the war itself.

McCain rubs hardcore Republicans the wrong ways if only because the hardcore of the party sees him as being too acceptable to the Democrats, ergo suspect.

Here, the Senator used that very acceptability to chastise the Democrats. "I don't doubt the sincerity
of our Democratic friends," he said. "And they should not doubt ours."

That led him to the question of the war on Iraq itself -- an issue at the core of the Democratic campaign against the incumbent.

"Our critics would have you believe that the choice before us was between a benign status quo and a needless war, but there was no status quo," McCain argued. "There was no status quo because it was increasingly difficult to keep Saddam Hussein in a box; the choice was not between status quo and war, but between war and a far graver threat."

In a presentation that resembled nothing so much as a skilled lawyer presenting his final argument to the jury, McCain permitted himself one brief moment of humor when he took note of the presence, in the press box, of maverick film-maker Michael Moore.

"Not our political opponents, not even a disingenuous film-maker …(prolonged, sustained boos)… who would have us believe that Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace can convince me. The mission was necessary, achievable and noble."

McCain rounded off with his argument for the re-election of Bush. The President, he said, was right when he said we were safer after 9/11.

"But we are not yet safe. We are still closer to the beginning, than to the end of this war. And to go all the way, we need a leader like President George W Bush. He will not flinch, he will not yield -- and neither will we."

That was enough to bring the house down, but McCain had one final flourish left. Elections, he said, are an opportunity for Americans to indulge in 'spirited disagreements'.

"But these should remain an argument among friends -- we are Americans first, Americans last, Americans always.

"We are Americans. We will never surrender. They will."

At that point, the delegates would have cheerfully handed him the nomination if he had wanted it.

Prem Panicker in New York