NEW YORK – An unpopular war and 1.1 million lost jobs is enough to kill a presidency, so President Bush tried Thursday night to make the election about something else: himself and his leadership style.

“Even when we don’t agree,” he told an anxious and divided nation, “you know what I believe and where I stand.”

He sought to make a virtue of his differences with half or more of the electorate, and cast Democratic rival John Kerry as a pandering, indecisive liberal unfit for wartime leadership.

“One thing I have learned about the presidency is that whatever shortcomings you have, people are going to notice them,” the president said, “and whatever strengths you have, you’re going to need them.”

Rare to admit mistakes, Bush copped to a few – arrogant, too blunt and cocky, and explained them away with laugh lines. But he didn’t give an inch on the matters that matter most, a war in Iraq that has cost the lives of nearly 1,000 U.S. troops, and a job-loss record that rivals Herbert Hoover.

These two issues are fueling a sense of unease among voters, with nearly 60 percent saying the nation is headed in the wrong direction. Bush’s big challenge was making Americans feel better about the course of their nation and the politics of their president, a task he tackled with a star-spangled political convention near Ground Zero, site of the nation’s deadliest attack and a symbol of his wartime leadership.

Kerry said voters won’t buy it.

“If you believe this country is heading in the right direction, you should support George Bush,” the Democrat said from Ohio, the most bitterly fought state battleground. “But if you believe America needs to move in a new direction, join with us.”

Stick with me, Bush said. By a 3-to-1 margin, people think the war in Iraq increased rather than decreased the threat of terrorism, and a solid majority don’t think Bush has a clear plan for bringing the Iraq war to a successful resolution. He offered none in the speech, promising to bring troops home “as soon as possible,” when Iraq is secure and democratic.

Bush defended the war by tying it, with the slenderest of threads, to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. At the dawn of an era of terror, his hand was forced Saddam Hussein and strengthened by the support of U.S. allies and congressional leaders, including Kerry, the president said.

“Do I forget the lessons of September 11th and take the word of a madman, or do I take actions to defend our country?” Bush said. “Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time.”

Then he set about suggesting that Kerry would make a different choice. The idea is to make people afraid to change, even as they’re craving it.

Bush noted that the Massachusetts senator voted to authorize war, then voted on both sides on a bill to pay for it. He said Kerry has mocked the small coalition of allies that backed the conflict. “I respect every soldier, from every country, who serves beside us in the hard work of history,” Bush said, suggesting that Kerry does not.

On the domestic front, Bush said, “We’ve seen an economy rise to its feet” and ticked off a laundry list of small-bore initiatives to keep it rising – a concept that might be hard to grasp in hard-hit Ohio. He promised more money to train workers and for community colleges and more economic zones offering tax relief to the poorest areas.

He’ll simplify the tax code (who wouldn’t?) and put health centers in every poor county (why not?) , but he didn’t say how. Some of the ideas were leftovers from his first term: health savings accounts and allowing workers to privatize parts their Social Security.

After months of courting conservatives, Bush dusted off his four-year-old “compassionate conservative” slogan and a poll-tested agenda to boot.

“In all these proposals, we seek to provide not just a government program, but a path – a path to greater opportunity, more freedom, and more control over your own life,” he said.

His challenge was to deliver a domestic agenda to deal with economic stress, job losses, health care, the high price of gasoline. Voters will decide if he delivered, but that may not be the point. If Bush has his way, the election won’t be about the issues, but the quality of men pushing them.

He’s playing to his strength. Bush’s ratings on personality issues such as leadership and likeability are high, even among skeptical swing voters.

“Two months from today, voters will make a choice based on the records we have built, the convictions we hold and the vision that guides us forward,” the president said. “A presidential election is a contest for the future. Tonight I will tell you where I stand, what I believe, and where I will lead this country in the next four years.”

If an anxious nation gives him the chance.

EDITORS: Ron Fournier has covered politics and the White House since 1993.

AP-ES-09-02-04 2249EDT

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