NEW YORK -- In the midst of their national convention, Republicans experienced a heart-stopping scare. George W. Bush, seemingly absent-minded, misspoke by saying the war against terrorism cannot be won. President Bush corrected the mistake within 24 hours, but the incident reflected the instability of the presidential re-election campaign.
"I doubt that you can win it," Bush replied Monday, when Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" show asked him about the war on terror. It is difficult to exaggerate the delight by Democrats of a little good luck at the end of what had become their dreadful month of August. A politically beleaguered John Kerry was busy windsurfing at Nantucket, but running mate John Edwards was sent out -- in trial lawyer intensity -- to seize the political high ground on fighting terror. Bush tried to recover the next day in addressing the American Legion convention in Nashville. "We are winning, and we will win," he told the cheering war veterans.
Another Republican president, Gerald Ford, 28 years ago stubbornly refused to correct a much more serious misstatement (saying that Poland was not under Soviet control), and lost the presidency because of it. Bush was not about to follow Ford's path in compounding an error. But determination in waging war against terror is such an integral part of Bush's presidency that any false step could be politically dangerous.
Actually, most of the 4,853 delegates and alternates to this convention were blissfully unaware of the little drama that played out briefly this week in an otherwise purposely uneventful convention. Even Bush's surrogates hardly mentioned the problem during their regular conference calls. But prominent Republicans, asking that their names not be used, expressed concern about the broader implications of the incident.
One senior senator with a flawless conservative voting record told me: "The troops in the field and their relatives at home must believe that an end is in sight. It would be really disastrous for them to think that there is no chance of winning this war." A prominent conservative governor, a particularly staunch Bush backer, said that the president had "stopped his own momentum" just as it seemed Sen. Kerry was in increasing trouble. The Democratic nominee was reeling, as another independent television ad used 33-year-old footage of Kerry saying he threw away his Vietnam War decorations.
The interruption of Bush's momentum conflicted with the meticulously planned national convention. Sen. John McCain delivered an effective argument for the war in Iraq, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani explained the war on terror more effectively than the president has ever managed to do. Ironically, in a tightly managed convention, any slipup -- however small -- is magnified out of proportion.
That the mistake was viewed with alarm by the Bush political high command was signified Tuesday when the president was not content to correct himself to the American Legion. He rapidly moved to explain himself to Rush Limbaugh's huge listening audience. When the conservative talk show host promptly asked about the Lauer interview, the president replied: "Well, I appreciate you bringing that up. Listen, I should have made my point more clear about what I meant."
But why on earth didn't he make his point more clearly? In privately confessing that the president made a mistake, his own aides do not go deeper into why he erred. In the Lauer interview, Bush gives the impression that he was not concentrating on one of his final pre-convention interviews, acting as if he really were bored by the process. He obviously meant to say, as he did the next day, that "we may never sit down at a peace table." Instead, he hurried over and blurred the well-rehearsed explanation.
The lesson for Bush strategists and other Republican politicians is that George W. Bush is no John F. Kennedy who can nonchalantly respond to reporters' questions. At his best, Bush is tightly disciplined in giving answers that have been carefully prepared. He had answered Lauer's question many times before but chose not to Monday, a loss of concentration he will repeat at his own risk in the next two months.