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New York, N.Y. — (AP) - Vice President Dick Cheney unleashed a stinging attack on Sen. John Kerry Wednesday night, ridiculing him as a politician who has made a career out of changing his mind. "More wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure," agreed Sen. Zell Miller, a Democratic keynoter at the Republican National Convention.
"As a war protester, Kerry blamed our military," said the Georgia senator in a fiery speech that drew repeated ovations from the GOP delegates in the hall. "As a senator, he voted to weaken our military."
The vice president hailed President Bush as a "superb commander in chief" who has helped restore the economy since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and will lead the nation to victory in the war on terror. Bush "does not deal in empty threats and halfway measures," Cheney said in a prime-time speech at the convention podium delivered to a nationwide television audience.
Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart instantly accused Republicans of "slash-and-burn politics" and said it won't work. "Dick Cheney and Zell Miller looked like angry and grumpy old men," he said.
Republicans launched their double-barreled attack on Bush's Democratic opponent as the president campaigned his way into the convention city, collecting the endorsement of the union representing New York's 8,600 firefighters, some of whom risked their lives on Sept. 11, 2001. His eyes misted as he stood among them and held a black fire helmet labeled "Commander in Chief."
"Four more years," they shouted - echoing the chants that floated up from the convention floor several miles away as delegates acclaimed the Bush-Cheney ticket for another term. The speeches by Cheney and Miller were the main events of the evening, but the convention seemed to move 20 years back in time at one point as delegates took in a tribute to the late Ronald Reagan. They cheered at video clips of the late president at his most forceful, then again when they saw former President George H.W. Bush eulogizing him in June. Madison Square Garden bloomed with thousands of blue placards that read "Win One for The Gipper."
Cheney performed the traditional vice president's role in his turn at the podium, praising the man at the top of the ticket while denigrating the leader of the political opposition. "Time and again he has made the wrong call on national security," the vice president said of Kerry.
"On Iraq, Sen. Kerry has disagreed with many of his fellow Democrats," Cheney said in a delivery as understated as Miller's was not. "But Sen. Kerry's liveliest disagreement is with himself. His back and forth reflects a habit of indecision, and sends a message of confusion."
"Flip-flop, flip-flop," motioned the delegates as they voiced their disdain for Bush's rival.
With two months remaining in a close election, and the pool of undecided voters a small one, Republicans relished the opportunity to place a Democrat out front at their convention. They had their man in Miller, a conservative ex-Marine who minces no words and delivered a keynote address a dozen years ago in the same hall in service of Democrat Bill Clinton.
"In this hour of danger our president has had the courage to stand up. And this Democrat is proud to stand up with him," the Georgia lawmaker said.
Dick Cheney and Zell Miller looked like angry and grumpy old men.
Outside the heavily defended hall, police watched warily as demonstrators waving pink slips formed a line three miles long in Manhattan to protest the Bush administration's economic policies. Fewer than a dozen arrests were reported, one day after police took into custody more than 1,000 demonstrators who had threatened to march on the convention hall.
A small group of AIDS activists managed to penetrate the Garden itself during the morning, before the convention session had begun for the day. They blew whistles and chanted, "Bush kills," at a morning session of GOP youth before being hustled from the floor.
Kerry ended a brief stint on the campaign sidelines, defying tradition by making an appearance while his rival's national convention was in progress.
"Extremism has gained momentum" as a result of administration missteps in Iraq, the Democratic nominee told a national convention of the American Legion, before adding that the war on terror is a winnable one with the right policies in place.
"When it comes to Iraq, it's not that I would have done one thing differently, I would have done almost everything differently" than the president, Kerry said.
Republicans took care to stipulate they weren't questioning the patriotism of Bush's rival, who won five military medals in the Vietnam War.
But their attack was unsparing as they dissected his record on war and taxes over a 35-year career in politics, from lieutenant governor in Massachusetts to four terms in the Senate.
"During his 20 years in Washington, John Kerry never met a tax increase he didn't like," said Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin "... This is one place where John Kerry never flip-flops."
"I'm proud to be from Massachusetts, where John Kerry will be the junior senator until 2008," taunted Gov. Mitt Romney.
Cheney and Miller did the heavy lifting, though, on the third night of a convention carefully scripted to spit-polish Bush's image as a commander in chief worthy of four more years while wounding his Democratic challenger.
"In all that we do, we will never lose sight of the greatest challenge of our time: Preserving the freedom and security of this nation against determined enemies," the vice president said. By contrast, Cheney said Kerry has been a model of indecision.
"And it is all part of a pattern," the vice president added. "He has, in the last several years, been for the No Child Left Behind Act - and against it. He has spoken in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement - and against it. He is for the Patriot Act - and against it. Sen. Kerry says he sees two Americas. It makes the whole thing mutual - America sees two John Kerrys."
A dozen years ago, Miller stood before a national convention in the Garden and said, "I am a Democrat because we are the party of hope."
That was then.
This is now: "Time after time in our history, in the face of great danger, Democrats and Republicans worked together to ensure that freedom would not falter," Miller said in speech for GOP loyalists. "But not today. Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today's Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator."
"Twenty years of votes can tell you much more about a man than twenty weeks of campaign rhetoric. Campaign talk tells people who you want them to think you are," he said. "How you vote tells people who you really are deep inside."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)