At nearly 11:30 p.m. on July 28, the Democratic Party finally had an official nominee. In the alphabetical roll call of states, Minnesota should have been the one to put John Kerry over the top with 2,162 delegates. But Minnesota passed (with a little arm-twisting by the Kerry campaign) in favor of Ohio, whose 20 electoral votes could well make the difference in November.
That allowed former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn to shout, "Ohio takes great pride tonight in being the state to put this voting over the top and making John Kerry's candidacy official, as we cast 159 votes for the next president of the United States, John Kerry!"
Whether Mr. Kerry lives up to Mr. Glenn's prediction may depend, in large part, on public reaction to the nominee's Thursday night acceptance speech-and indeed, to the convention as a whole. Last-minute polls, released just as Democratic delegates began converging on Boston, showed an unexpected surge by Mr. Bush. After months of decline, the president's overall approval rating inched back up to the 50 percent mark, and solid majorities of voters now prefer Mr. Bush over Mr. Kerry when it comes to handling both Iraq and the war on terror. Just last month, the two candidates were tied on those subjects.
Small wonder that Mr. Kerry planned to dedicate half of his 50-minute acceptance speech to foreign-policy matters-not traditionally friendly ground for a Democrat. But even before Mr. Kerry took the podium for the most important speech of his life, the foreign-policy theme was unmistakable throughout the four-day convention. After skipping across the country en route to Boston, Mr. Kerry's greeters at Logan Airport included 13 of his former Swift Boat crewmates from his service in Vietnam. The old friends boarded a water taxi to cross Boston Harbor, sailing right past the convention site to dock at the Charlestown Naval Yard, home to the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship still afloat anywhere in the world.
For those who missed the not-so-subtle military imagery, Mr. Kerry did his best to make it explicit. "Bruce Springsteen has it right," he told a roaring crowd at the dock as the Boss's "No Retreat" blared over the loudspeakers. "No retreat. No surrender. We are taking this fight to the country, and we are going to win back our democracy and our future."
At the podium, speaker after speaker blasted the Bush administration for its purported bungling of the war on terror and the rebuilding of Iraq. Delegates saw a video featuring 10 retired generals and admirals who have endorsed Mr. Kerry, and one of the prime-time speakers on Wednesday night was Gen. John Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was introduced by retired Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, the only woman ever to achieve the rank of three-star general in the Army.
It was another Kennedy, however, who was perhaps the most openly critical of Mr. Bush's foreign policy. In a rousing Tuesday-night speech designed to energize the party's liberal base, Sen. Ted Kennedy charged Mr. Bush with isolating and endangering America with his ill-conceived international adventures.
"In the depths of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt inspired the nation when he said, 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' Today, we say the only thing we have to fear is four more years of George Bush.
"How could any president have possibly squandered the enormous goodwill that flowed to America from across the world after September 11?" Mr. Kennedy wondered aloud. "More than 900 of our servicemen and women have already paid the ultimate price. Nearly 6,000 have been wounded in this misguided war. The administration has alienated longtime allies. Instead of making America more secure, they have made us less so. They have made it harder to win the real war on terrorism, the war against al-Qaeda. None of this had to happen."
Still, that was relatively benign rhetoric for the red-meat senator who last year outraged even some of his fellow Democrats by charging that the war in Iraq was nothing more than a "fraud made up in Texas." Mr. Kennedy would surely have been more strident were it not for the convention's second, underlying theme: This year, at least, Democrats want to appear just plain nicer than Republicans.
Mr. Kennedy's speech-like every other well-scripted oration throughout the well-scripted convention-claimed that the Bush administration's hold on power is based on fear and division. "They divide and try to conquer," Mr. Kennedy said of the current administration. "They know the power of the people is weakened when our house is divided. They believe they can't win, unless the rest of us lose. We reject that shameful view."
But there is hope, the speakers stressed: Democrats, under Mr. Kerry's leadership, can once again usher in an era of unity and good feeling. "Today, the better angels of our nature are just waiting to be summoned," said Teresa Heinz Kerry. "I think I've found just the guy. I'm married to him. John Kerry will give us back our faith in America. He will restore our faith in ourselves and in the sense of limitless opportunity that has always been America's gift to the world. Together we will lift everyone up. We have to. It's possible. And you know what? It's the American thing to do."
It's also the politically expedient thing to do, Mr. Kerry's handlers believe. With polls showing a sharply divided electorate, strategists are afraid of scaring off undecided voters by leveling sharp personal attacks at a wartime president. That's why the Kerry team sent out a pre-convention memo, urging all speakers and spinners to avoid taking gratuitous pot-shots at Mr. Bush. To make sure that directive was heeded, every speech was vetted by a team of Kerry advisers charged with maintaining the convention's overall sunny theme.
That made for some awkward moments. Former President Jimmy Carter, a man with little left to prove at age 80, flatly refused to soften his speech. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, negotiated for days over what she could and could not say in her Thursday night address. Kerry aides were so nervous about a Tuesday night appearance by "Angry Al" Gore that they monitored his rehearsal session earlier in the day. Even former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a man not widely known for restraint or self-control, was forced to stay generally within the feel-good guidelines of the Kerry campaign.
To critics like Tom Shales of The Washington Post, all the editing made it feel as if Democrats had "cast a pall of niceness over the proceedings." To be sure, there was plenty of talk about "taking America back," "fighting the special interests," and "restoring faith in the White House." But, with the exception of the Iraq War, the Democrats at the podium rarely named Mr. Bush directly as the source of America's problems. Dick Cheney, too, was largely off-limits, as was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. One after another, speakers blasted the policies they loathed without naming the people responsible for those policies.
The production was so tightly scripted that the Kerry campaign met any deviation with alarm-even panic. When the always-unpredictable Rev. Al Sharpton went off-script for several minutes to berate Mr. Bush on economics and civil rights ("If George Bush had selected the court in '54, Clarence Thomas would have never got to law school"), Mr. Kerry's handlers scrambled to make sure the networks wouldn't cut off John Edwards's subsequent speech if it stretched beyond 11 p.m.
If commentators were surprised at the tone of the convention, perhaps they shouldn't have been. Earlier this year Mr. Edwards ran his own presidential campaign with a kind of happy-face rule, leading many analysts to discount his chances of a No. 2 slot, given the vice president's traditional role as a political bulldog. But Mr. Kerry's choice signaled that he wanted something different from his running mate, and Mr. Edwards delivered with a different kind of speech-one in which he never mentioned Mr. Bush or Mr. Cheney by name. (Mr. Cheney, by contrast, mentioned Al Gore by name eight times during his acceptance speech at the 2000 GOP convention.)
"We choose hope over despair, possibilities over problems, optimism over cynicism," Mr. Edwards told thousands of cheering delegates as he outlined the feel-good themes of the fall campaign. "What John Kerry and I believe is that you should never look down on anybody, that we should lift people up. We don't believe in tearing people apart. We believe in bringing people together. What we believe-what I believe-is that the family you're born into and the color of your skin in our America should never control your destiny."
Maintaining a positive message meant more than just scrubbing speeches clean of personal attacks, however. Divisive issues like abortion, affirmative action, and gay rights-though near and dear to the hearts of many delegates-were almost never addressed from the podium. If speakers broached social issues at all, they usually did so obliquely, like Mr. Sharpton's somewhat cryptic line that "government does not seek to regulate your behavior in the bedroom, but to guarantee your right to provide food in the kitchen."
Not that anyone actually heard Mr. Sharpton's remarks, anyway. Limited television coverage helped the Kerry campaign keep some of its more controversial supporters out of the limelight. Although Tuesday's official theme, for instance, was "A lifetime of strength and service," it might as well have been dubbed "Embarrassing liberals denied prime-time coverage." From Ted Kennedy to Howard Dean to Mr. Kerry's own wife, loose-lipped liberals took their turn at the podium on a night with no live coverage by the major networks.
With the TV cameras going dark on July 30, Republicans are looking forward to a month of unscripted campaigning before staging their own tightly controlled convention in New York. It, too, is sure to lack any real suspense-but a down-to-the-wire election in November should provide enough drama for even the most insatiable political junkie.