Fireworks and confetti as George W promises a new beginning

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The Independent US

George W Bush set his presidential campaign rolling towards the White House yesterday with a call for new leadership in America and a denunciation of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

George W Bush set his presidential campaign rolling towards the White House yesterday with a call for new leadership in America and a denunciation of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

"My fellow citizens, we can begin again," he said in a speech to the Republican convention in Philadelphia, bringing its week of highly choreographed celebrations to a tumultuous climax of riotous applause, confetti, fireworks and balloons.

Mr Bush criticised the President and Mr Gore, his Democratic opponent, in his speech accepting the party's nomination, but he did so in a tone of regret for omissions rather than outright attack. The Democrats had come to power at a time of prosperity and failed to use this to America's advantage, he said.

"Times of plenty, like times of crisis, are tests of American character," said Mr Bush, the Governor of Texas. "Our current president embodied the potential of a generation. So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But in the end, to what end? So much promise, to no great purpose."

Four times he repeated: "They had their chance. They have not led. We will."

And in another backhanded slap at the Clintons, Mr Bush quoted the poet Robert Frost's injunction to "occupy the land with character."

"We will seize this moment of American promise," said the Texas Governor, offering himself up as a man of action who would seize the moment. "We will use these good times for great goals. We will confront the hard issues - threats to our national security, threats to our health and retirement security - before the challenges of our time become crises for our children. And we will extend the promise of prosperity to every forgotten corner of this country."

After a tightly organised week of speeches, music, dancing, videos and even a little politics, the Republicans have given themselves strong momentum as the election campaign moves into its decisive stage. "We are now the party of ideas and innovation," said Mr Bush, "the party of idealism and inclusion... The party of a simple and powerful hope... My fellow citizens, we can begin again."

"The night is passing. And we are ready for the day to come," he added later, both phrases evoking Ronald Reagan's slogan in 1984: "It's morning again in America." And he called on the party to "tear down that wall" between rich and poor, a deliberate allusion to Mr Reagan's admonition to Mikhail Gorbachev to take down the barrier that divided Cold War Berlin.

Mr Bush also distanced himself from Washington, aiming to appear like an outsider albeit one with considerable experience. He admitted that he "may lack the polish of Washington. Then again, I don't have a lot of things that come with Washington experience. I don't have enemies to fight. And I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years. I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect."

The core themes which Mr Bush is pushing have remained unchanged since he launched his candidacy last year at a ceremony in Austin, Texas: tax cuts, better education, reforming America's pensions scheme and giving more cash to the US military.

The campaign has, since the outset, been a rigorously disciplined, tightly organised and very well-funded effort, leaving little to chance and giving few hostages to fortune. A film of Mr Bush's life-story had been prepared to run before his speech, a 9 and a half minute hagiography entitled "The Sky's the Limit." It follows a similiar film used by the Democrats at the 1992 convention, where they showcased Mr Clinton; the republicans have deliberately taken many themes, ideas and tricks from their opponents.

Gov Bush called on Democrats to join with the Republicans in tackling key issues, a push for the centre ground which is aimed at garnering the support of independent and uncommitted voters. Opinion polls show it is working. Mr Bush is 18 points ahead of Democrat Al Gore amongst independents, according to a poll released yesterday, while the two were neck and neck just four days ago.

Mr Bush and Dick Cheney, his vice-president, both won their nominations late on Wednesday night - hardly surprising, since all the other candidates were out of the race. The convention was once used to select candidates, and sometimes turned into a pitched batle. Those days are long gone; now, it is a mixture of showbusiness and public relations. But the Republicans, who have chosen to showcase what they label a more inclusive and open party, have used the opportunity to the maximum.

Gov Bush was to call on Democrats to join with the Republicans in tackling key issues, a push for the centre ground which is aimed at garnering the support of independent and uncommitted voters. Opinion polls show it is working. Mr Bush is 18 points ahead of Democrat Al Gore amongst independents, according to a poll released yesterday, while the two were neck and neck just four days ago. That shows the "bounce" which every candidate hopes to gain from the convention. The Democrats hold their show in Los Angeles in ten days time, and Mr Gore will hope that he can recover ground there.

Mr Bush's speech was generally well received. "Mr. Bush, who would never claim to be in the same league as an orator with Mr. Clinton or with Ronald Reagan, gave a credible account of himself," said the New York Times, "and made a start at the process of convincing the country that his legs are long enough to reach the stirrups of leadership at home and abroad." But the Washington Post cautioned that "the speech was longer on rhetoric than it was on policy details."

The campaign traditionally begins after Labor Day in early September, but Mr Bush has made clear that from now until election day in November he will be on the stump. He and Mr Cheney were heading straight out on the campaign trail, in a three-day train ride across Ohio, Michigan and Illinois - all states carried by Bill Clinton, and now the key electoral battlegrounds.

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