Cover Story

NICE TRY

Concerned about scaring off swing voters, Democrats - mostly - put on a friendly face at their national convention

Issue: "Democrats are all smiles," Aug. 7, 2004

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.

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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."

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