Rupert Cornwell: Bush puts a swagger in the steps of all his followers as he leads them into the final act

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It was billed as the most important address of his Presidency, the one that would decisively tilt the momentum of this fierce contest for the White House in his favour, guaranteeing him the second term that eluded his father. It may yet prove that. But the main purpose of George W Bush's hour-long acceptance speech was the same as the entire four day long party infomercial that preceded it; to fire up Republican true believers for the battle that lies ahead.

It was billed as the most important address of his Presidency, the one that would decisively tilt the momentum of this fierce contest for the White House in his favour, guaranteeing him the second term that eluded his father. It may yet prove that. But the main purpose of George W Bush's hour-long acceptance speech was the same as the entire four day long party infomercial that preceded it; to fire up Republican true believers for the battle that lies ahead.

Yesterday no polls were yet available to measure whatever "bounce" Mr Bush has gained from the convention in Madison Square Garden. But, given the polarisation of the electorate, it is unlikely to be much larger than the two or three points lift in favour of John Kerry after the Democrats' own gathering in Boston at the end of July. One telling sign was that the cable network Fox News. which is strongly identified with the Republicans, astonishingly secured higher ratings than the "big three" established networks, ABC, CBS and NBC - more proof that this week the party has been preaching to the long-since converted.

Mr Bush's speech, delivered from a specially constructed circular stage in the centre of the arena, was a creature of two parts.

The first half was drab, a listing of domestic proposals for his second term, mingled with some predictable swipes at his opponent. The "plan" was little more than a laundry list; a mixture of sweeping but imprecise promises such as a reform of the tax system, coupled with small initiatives that are hardly the stuff of resounding election manifestos, such as the creation of "opportunity zones" in depressed areas, and a tinkering with health coverage arrangements for small businesses.

Shamelessly twisting the facts, the President charged that Mr Kerry had proposed $2,000bn of new spending ("a lot even for a senator from Massachusetts") - utterly ignoring the fact that he himself has expanded federal spending more rapidly than any modern occupant of the Oval Office, pushing Amercia's budget and current account deficits to record levels. He derided his opponent's popularity in Hollywood, noting wryly that Mr Kerry had claimed to be "the candidate of 'conservative values' - which must have come as a surprise to many of his supporters".

But it is on the issues of terrorism and national security that Mr Bush will stand or fall on 2 November. The President has plainly decided that even if he wanted to, there is nothing to be gained by changing his approach now. "A Safer World and a More Hopeful America" was the giant slogan on the screen behind him as he spoke. To foe and friend, his message was the same: take me or leave me. The foreign policy of a second Bush administration will be as assertive and hard-nosed as that of the first.

Only briefly did this most obdurate of presidents concede flaws - albeit in the most effective passage of the speech, close to the end, just before his peroration on war, military valour and American greatness. Gently but effectively, Mr Bush poked fun at himself, wryly alluding to his shortcomings with language (see panel, right).

It was a reminder of the ability of the son to charm, however briefly, those who cannot abide his policies and, if not to win them over, at least to get them to give him a hearing.

As for the policies, they will not be changing any time soon. The model for the 43rd President is not his father, but his "41", but 41's iconic predecessor, Ronald Reagan, whose black-and-white approach to Communism changed the world in his own time.

This Bush also sees the world in unchanging hues. The decision to invade Iraq was correct at the time and remained correct now, Mr Bush declared, whatever the intelligence failings before the war, and the chaos in the country afterwards. "Do I forget the lessons of September 11, and take the word of a madman," he asked once again, "or do I take action to defend our country? Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time."

After the Supreme Court handed him victory in the deadlocked 2000 election, the President and his close advisers took a strategic decision, as one put it, "within 30 minutes of entering the White House", that, despite the dubious nature of their triumph, they would govern as if they had a full mandate for their agenda. That remains the approach now.

Neither the closeness of the 2004 contest, or the criticism he has encountered, will cause Mr Bush to change his mind.

Instead he is carrying the battle to his opponent by every means available.

In Boston, the Democrats eschewed Bush-bashing, intent on presenting a sunny image to the country.

Here, Kerry-bashing has been the order of the day. Coupled (and possibly orchestrated) with the relentless attack ads by a veterans' group accusing the Massachusetts senator of lying over his Vietnam record, the strategy seems to have worked, at least in the mind wars of this election campaign, if not yet in the opinion polls.

Mr Kerry has been on the back foot, forced to spend much of August - when he would have expected to have the advantage - defending himself against charges relating to the most glittering part of his résumé.

Mr Bush, by contrast, appears to have regained his widelead in voters' perceptions of who best will protect America. In New York, the Republicans have had the last word of Act II of this never-ending campaign. The President has now opened the final Act III, which will play out in the vital swing state of Pennsylvania.

His momentum is far from unstoppable; in a month's time comes the first presidential debate. But for now there is a spring in his step and a glint in his eye that will delight his supporters.

'IN TEXAS, IT'S CALLED WALKING'

All week it had been all about George; the compassionate conservative and resolute commander-in-chief. In such an ocean of aggrandisement, might a little bit of self-deprecation from the man himself not be in order? It was.

"You may have noticed I have a few flaws, too," the President intoned in his speech. The hall instantly boiled over with delight. The delegates knew what was coming. "People sometimes have to correct my English," Mr Bush conceded. He surely hadn't seen one of the protest placards outside, asking:"How can we elect someone who can't pronounce nuclear?" But apparently a few closer to him have been bold enough to correct him. "I knew I had a problem when Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it."

He didn't stop there. "Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking'." Cue whoops and hollers from the Texas delegation, just to his right.

And if this was too unsubtle, don't blame him. "Now and then I come across as a little too blunt, and for that we can all thank the white-haired lady sitting right up there." That would be mum Barbara, who had been in the presidential box with George Sr. But when the President pointed in her direction, her seat was empty. Maybe she didn't want to see her boy take aim at himself. But the delegates loved it.

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