Bush Stresses Defense Credentials

PHILADELPHIA -- With the United States at peace and the Cold War but a memory, foreign policy and defense have fallen near the bottom of most voters' concerns.

But George W. Bush's Republicans had a strategy in mind when they devoted a full session of their convention to talking about national security f election strategy, not global strategy.

Pollsters and Republican leaders say the Texas governor, who has occasionally jumbled the names of foreign countries, still needs to convince some voters he is ready to become the nation's commander-in-chief.

Tuesday's session of the Republican National Convention, with a parade of war heroes and foreign policy experts marching on stage to endorse Bush, was intended to address that gap.

"It's a checklist that people have in terms of basic competence," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "It's still an important dimension to a president, and since Governor Bush has not had the foreign policy experience his dad had, it's a way of measuring the strength of the bench, of the team."

"Defense isn't a top-tier issue for voters, but it's a credential issue for Bush," agreed Democratic pollster Peter Hart.

Reviving a theme that helped Republicans win elections during the Cold War, Bush has accused the administration of President Bill Clinton and his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, of neglecting the needs of the armed forces f in effect, being "soft on defense."

Most voters appear to agree. In a Los Angeles Times Poll released this week, voters said they favored Gore's position on such issues as the economy, Social Security and health care f but on defense, they favored Bush by a wide margin, 61 percent to 24 percent.

Bush has been surprised by the strong support for his calls for more spending on military pay and weapons research, his chief strategist said.

"Rebuilding the military ? was thought to be a minor applause line," said strategist Karl Rove. "Instead, it got a huge response from people on the campaign trail."

So Bush has made strong defense one of the five main themes of his campaign. He has made several major speeches on the issue, including a detailed proposal for nuclear weapons reductions, to demonstrate his familiarity with strategic questions. He chose a former secretary of defense, Richard Cheney, as his running mate. And aides said he won't shrink from questioning Gore's record on defense in the fall campaign.

Bush's proposed spending increases are not large. The House and Senate have approved defense spending plans that total $310 billion for the coming fiscal year, including a 3.7 percent increase in military pay.

And the differences between the Republican-led Congress and the Democratic administration have not been dramatic. Congress's $310 billion was about $4.5 billion more than President Clinton requested in his budget, a difference of about 1.5 percent.

"The president and Congress haven't been that far apart," said Steven Kosiak, an analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "So to point a finger at the Clinton administration is kind of problematic."

Kosiak noted that defense spending has increased since 1999 after a decade-long decline under Clinton and his predecessor, Republican President George Bush, the father of the party's nominee this year.

"The drawdown that has occurred since the end of the Cold War has largely been a bipartisan affair," he said.

Bush's charge of a severe decline in military readiness is also contested by some analysts.

"The charge is about two-thirds wrong and one-third right," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. "Overall readiness is quite good. If you look at performance, it's outstanding. ? But by some measures, there has been a downward trend, and that's cause for concern," he said.

Will the defense issue matter in November? Pollsters Hart and McInturff say no f unless, unexpectedly, the nation is at war.

"There's very little foreign policy dimension in this campaign," McInturff said.

And Hart questioned whether Tuesday's testimonials from Republican war heroes f Senator John McCain, Republican from Arizona, who was a prisoner in Vietnam; former Senator Bob Dole, Republican from Kansas, who was wounded in World War II; and retired General Norman Schwartzkopf, who led U.S. troops to victory in the Gulf War f would have much effect.

Bush "can't establish his credentials through surrogates," Hart said. "He has to be able to show it himself."