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At the RNC, It's Popeye for President

By Ciro Scotti In the 1971 movie classic The French Connection, Gene Hackman plays the New York Police detective Popeye Doyle, a simple man for whom the color gray isn't an option. At one point, he bursts into a rough bar and announces: "Popeye's here!"

Last night at Madison Square Garden in New York, the Republicans burst into a rough city and began a weeklong announcement: "Popeye Bush is here! Or at least that's what they meant to do.

Despite nonstop evocations of September 11 and testimonies to the President's resolve on that hideous day by former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and Arizona Senator John McCain, the crowd in the Garden was strangely slow to catch fire. In fact, Night One of the Republican Convention was low-energy until former Mayor Rudy Giuliani finally got GOP juices flowing. He did so by striking a theme that will be on display all week -- that Bush is a leader like Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan who sticks to his guns and doesn't waffle "no matter how he's demonized or belittled by the media."

TOP THREE CHIEFS. The power of this cartoonish "I yam what I yam" Popeye Strategy was evident earlier in the day at a GOP event billed as "W Stands for Women" (see BW Online, 8/31/04, "The Women on W's Side").

As hordes of well-coiffed and sometimes well-dressed women poured into a ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria, Kathy Eshelman, a small-businesswoman from Columbus, Ohio, declared that she's backing Bush because "he says what he's going to do, and he sticks to it."

Sally deBarcza, the elegant president of the New Jersey Federation of Republican Women, was even more effusive. She ranks Bush among the top three Presidents of her lifetime -- right after Reagan and Dick Nixon, for whom she went door-to-door in 1960 despite being pregnant. What does she like so much about Bush? "His fortitude in making hard decisions and sticking to them.... We cannot allow the terrorists to rule our lives and make our children and grandchildren afraid," she said.

GUESS WHO'S WIMPY. Her smartly tailored companion, Dorothy Smith, the widow of Thomas S. Smith, the only African-American Republican in the New Jersey state assembly, repeated what was starting to sound like a Stepford Wives mantra: "What [Bush] says, he sticks to no matter what the outside thinks."

Then the President's mother, Barbara Bush, spoke to the affectionate gathering about the President's uncomplicated nature. "What you see is what you get," she said.

Suzanne Sharkey, a convention delegate from Fort Collins, Colo., said she's attracted to candidate Bush because "I'm looking for character." Certainly, that's what Giuliani was selling. "President Bush has the courage of his convictions," he said, adding that "being able to stick with core beliefs" is the sign of a great leader.

So let's get this straight: Popeye is strong and good and determined. He beats up the Blutos of the world. John Kerry is Wimpy. The message, like George W. Bush, is without nuance. But it's one that will be relentlessly repeated until the Republicans leave New York for home. And who knows, like a Madison Avenue jingle, it could stick in a lot of heads. Scotti is BusinessWeek's senior editor for government and sports business and offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online

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