John Kerry must fight to seize back the US election agenda from the Republicans

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The Republican Party convention that opens in New York today will be the customary slick and well-rehearsed production - inside the battened-down confines of Madison Square Garden. Outside, however, the streets of New York will be owned by Democrats who claim the city as theirs by right. What appeared less than 12 months ago as a publicity coup for the Republicans now looks more like a foolhardy adventure to tweak the enemy's tail.

The Republican Party convention that opens in New York today will be the customary slick and well-rehearsed production - inside the battened-down confines of Madison Square Garden. Outside, however, the streets of New York will be owned by Democrats who claim the city as theirs by right. What appeared less than 12 months ago as a publicity coup for the Republicans now looks more like a foolhardy adventure to tweak the enemy's tail.

Almost every early calculation made by the White House has proved erroneous. The idea was to bring the convention to New York in the early days of September to capitalise on the coming anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. A warrior President was supposed to celebrate his victory over "terror", surrounded by the heroes of that apocalyptic hour: the fire-fighters, the police, the ordinary people of New York.

That script has already been ripped up. President Bush will now make only the briefest of appearances in the city. He will arrive, speak and depart - cocooned in security - much as he undertook his Thanksgiving Day trip to Baghdad. New York this week is only slightly less hostile terrain. The firefighters and police are in dispute with the city authorities about their pay and contracts. There are anti-Bush demonstrations of every hue. Saddam Hussein may be in prison, but the war in Iraq has turned bad. And the luminous clock at Times Square that once notched up the accumulating national debt is now registering the number of dead soldiers.

With the image of Mr Bush in his flight suit declaring "mission accomplished" a liability, the new script for the Republican campaign is a civilian one. The President, say his staff, will now present himself as a grass-roots leader who understands the concerns of Americans and professes the same simple verities as they do. Small matter that Mr Bush's provenance is as far from grass-roots America as that of his father or his Democrat opponent. Mr Bush has mastered the common touch and in this election it could be his greatest asset.

He does not have very many more. The economy may be on the turn, but it is not producing jobs, still less well-paying jobs, at anything like the rate that was forecast. Some of the biggest marginal states are, as Mr Bush put it last week, "still hurting". The effects of his tax cuts have not trickled down. The ballooning trade and budget deficits are starting to matter. Oil prices are at record levels. And the Iraq war has already cost billions of dollars and will cost many more.

Nor can Mr Bush return to his 2000 mantra of being a "uniter not a divider". He has divided his home country and the world as perhaps no president before. The last-minute decision by the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, not to attend the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympics after hostile demonstrations outside the US embassy is a measure of US isolation.

Deprived of a war victory, a rebounding economy and international regard, Mr Bush is apparently set to mount the final weeks of his campaign on "values". This will play to the faithful inside Madison Square Garden; it will be heartily scorned by the demonstrators in the Manhattan streets. But the only relevant question is how it will go down in those few constituencies that have not yet made up their minds which way to vote.

Mr Bush goes into his party convention with a slim lead in the polls. He has ruthlessly set about destroying John Kerry's greatest electoral assets - his co-operative, multilateral outlook (damned as "French") and his war hero's status (damned as fabricated) - and he may already have succeeded. Unless Mr Kerry can wrench the agenda back to his strengths, Mr Bush will fight this election on his cultivated folksy appeal and his own definition of "values". This is a very different agenda from the one Mr Kerry was counting on when he saluted and "reported for duty" at the Democratic convention last month. As past rivals would testify, Mr Bush is a formidable campaigner; Mr Kerry must show that he can fight just as hard.

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