The Republican party has scheduled its 2004 convention unusually late in the year, so that the climactic moment when President George Bush's re-election campaign begins will nearly coincide with the third anniversary of the September 11 attack, according to a report yesterday.
The New York convention, in late August and early September next year, will mark the formal launch of the re-election campaign, but unofficially the campaign has already started. With the war in Iraq barely over, the president has begun holding rallies in key swing states.
Its central aim has become clear: to bridge the gap between Mr Bush's popularity as a wartime leader and the national ambivalence towards his domestic policies, a political chasm which the Democrats will seek to exploit.
A new low - The combination of exploiting for political gain America's worst tragedy since Pearl Harbor and the personal losses of thousands brings a new meaning to cynicism.
The guiding philosophy underlying the campaign is the avoidance of the mistakes made by the president's father, who won the 1991 Gulf war but was voted out of office largely because he was viewed as unconcerned with the plight of the economy.
The strategy this time will be to focus on domestic economics and to make sure the glow of victory, and awareness of continuing peril, do not fade.
In New York, Mr Bush will deliver his keynote address, accepting the Republican nomination, on September 2, just two months before the election and the latest acceptance in the party's 148-year history.
The choice of venues for his postwar appearances has also been loaded with symbolism. He celebrated the liberation of Iraq and defended his tax cuts at a Boeing jet fighter plant in Missouri last week. This week, he will speak at a factory in Ohio (another swing state) that builds the Abrams tank, which helped to win the Iraq war so rapidly, explicitly making the link between the war and jobs. The US economy has lost 2 million jobs since he took office.
Similarly, the president's conservative supporters have ques tioned the patriotism of moderate Republican senators who oppose the scale of his proposed $726bn tax cut. Television advertisements have compared the rebels to the French president, Jacques Chirac.
The New York Times quoted Republicans close to the White House as saying the timing of the convention was part of a strategy to intertwine the re-election campaign with national security issues.
The late convention, more than a month after its Democratic counterpart, would also maximize the Republicans' fundraising advantage, putting off the imposition of spending ceilings that only take effect when a party has chosen its candidate.
The Democratic chairman, Terry McAuliffe said Mr Bush and his advisers had "reached a new low - The combination of exploiting for political gain America's worst tragedy since Pearl Harbor and the personal losses of thousands brings a new meaning to cynicism".
The Republican national committee yesterday denied that the late convention date had been picked to exploit the September 11 anniversary.
"It has nothing to do with it," a party official said. "As the Democrats are out of power, they go first, and they chose July. Because the Olympics are in August, we had to go after that." Asked why the convention was not scheduled in the first half of August, before the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens are due to start, the official said: "It was just a choice that was made."
Frank Luntz, a Republican political consultant, said the late convention was dictated more by traditional political calculations than by a desire to draw on the emotions of September 11. "What you want to do if you're the incumbent is to get the head-to-head confrontation [between the two nominees] as short as possible," Mr Luntz said.
He also doubted that the desire to minimize the time between the nomination and election day, during which the parties are limited to spending $75m under federal election rules, was the motive underlying the schedule.
"As incumbents, they have more money than God," he said. The presidential re-election campaign has set a record fundraising target of $200m.
A poll gauging the American mood in the aftermath of the Iraq war gave Mr Bush an approval rating of 72%, much higher than his prewar score of 55% but considerably lower than his father's 89% at the end of his Gulf war. In a few months the percentage of Americans who supported Mr Bush Sr halved, as the economy worsened.
While his father won the support of nearly three-quarters of Democrats for his wartime leadership, the current president has won over only half.
More Americans disapprove of his handling of the economy than approve, and a recent Associated Press survey found 61% of Americans do not agree with the president's ambitious tax-cut proposals.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003