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The Speech Of His Life

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Political careers aren't shattered by lackluster presidential nominee acceptance speeches, nor do great convention addresses guarantee a White House bid.

Yet George W. Bush, making his biggest political speech to date, will deliver an acceptance address Thursday night in Philadelphia that he hopes will win over the American people, many of whom have little knowledge of the Texas governor's political acumen.

"Those of us who've been on the campaign trail with the governor, we've seen him give hundreds, maybe thousands, of speeches," said Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director. "I haven't kept count. But this one speech will be seen by more people in America than all those speeches combined."

True enough, it's just a single speech. Nevertheless, one that will make history.

Hughes said Bush and his staff first talked of the speech he would present at the Republican National Convention as early as March. Shortly after it was clear that Bush would be the GOP presidential nominee.

First he shared ideas about what he wanted to say. A staff member spent ten days on a first draft followed by many sessions to refine the message.

"It's very much his speech," said Hughes, a member of the very small Bush inner circle known for its loyalty and cohesiveness. "He's worked very hard ... in the last edit session he actually changed a 'then' to an 'and'."

Bush has practiced the speech several times - the first rehearsal taking place at his Texas ranch, where staff members videotaped him and later critiqued his performance. One of the last dry runs was at the home of friends in Cincinnati, Ohio as he campaigned by bus through the Midwest on his way to the Philadelphia convention.

"His friends applauded in all the right places," said Hughes, "just where the applause lines were supposed to be."

By the start of this convention week, the product of that process was in its 15th draft and counting.

Fine tuning and plugging the pauses in all the right places is a difficult art that Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson will try to perfect.

Because always waiting in the wings to pick out the gaffes and rhetorical sound bites are pundits, the opposition party and late-night comedian talk show hosts ready to rip into the message.

The GOP nominee's father, former President George Bush, fell victim to one of his own lines that put him in the White House in 1988 but that came to haunt him four years later during his run against President Bill Clinton.

His "Read my lips, no new taxes" line became a rallying cry for the Republican Party. But during his term, the elder Bush did raise taxes and Mr. Clinton deftly exploited that remark to oust the GOP from the White House.

There also have plenty of moments that can often define a presidency.

John F. Kennedy introduced the term "New Frontier" in 1960.

So what will Bush say? Hughes said there will be more than one message.
"It's a very thoughtful speech. It's got different moods in different sections of the speech. In part of it he has sort of a regretful tone about the fact that there's been an opportunity for the Clinton-Gore administration to enact some major reforms, yet nothing has happened," Hughes said. "In part he needles his opponent a little bit. In part of it he talks about the promise of America and making sure it's available to all our citizens. And then he talks about the issues and what he wants to accomplish as president."

Bush's speech will echo the inclusive message of this convention, targeting those voters who say they are tired of politics as usual. He hopes to convince them that he would govern differently.