What To Expect From Bush

Here in Philadelphia, it's all been leading up to Thursday night. George W. Bush will finally take the stage at the Republican National Convention to accept his party's nomination and to deliver the most important speech of his political life.

The candidate's acceptance speech is the closest thing to a newsworthy event in this age of canned conventionsÂ…so can we expect any surprises from Bush's address? The short answer, in the short term, is no. The Texas governor has followed an unusually tight script from the beginning, to a degree one can equate with his true political mentor-not his father, but President Reagan. So don't expect deviations from the choreography at the main event of a convention that is to politics what pro-wrestling is to sport.

But don't underestimate the mid- and longer-term significance of Bush's speech. It may be devoid of surprise, but its content has the potential to reveal much about how the campaign will continue to sell its candidate. And the days, weeks, and months ahead will reveal how this sales pitch is going over with the American electorate.

Having shot off a fusillade of detail-light policy proposals in the first weeks after Bush sewed up the nomination, the Republican presidential campaign has turned increasingly to generalities. The first three days of the Convention have seen this trend intensify. We've heard speaker after speaker take to the podium to attest to their candidate's bona fides as a family man (Laura Bush), a man who "can help bridge our racial divides" (Colin Powell), who "believes in the greatness of America" (John McCain), and who is a leader in the tradition of Ford, Reagan, and Bush Senior (Dick Cheney).

The refrain has been that George W. Bush is a candidate who will "restore honor and dignity" to the Oval Office, as in Dick Cheney's line that "On the first hour of the first day, he will restore decency and integrity to the White House" - as if decency and integrity are pieces of furniture that a Bush transition team would be sure to bring along to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In his speech tonight, word is, Bush will try to move his candidacy from the realm of platitudes into specifics on Social Security, tax cuts, and a prescription drug plan for seniors. It's a move that comes not a moment too soon for the Republican candidate.

Team Bush has run thus far in what may be called, to borrow and invert a football term, a "prevent offense." They've moved ahead, sure, but with an eye always on preserving the lead and avoiding the bold stroke that could backfire. In football, the knock on the prevent defense is that the only thing it prevents is your team from winning.

On Thursday night, most of America will get their first extended view of George W. Bush, after months of fleeting glimpses and short soundbites. By giving the voters something of substance, he has a chance to avoid running up against the limits of prevent offense as a political strategy.