A political pageant that few may notice

As Kerry hones his message, most Americans won't tune in.

The red, white, and blue bunting is being draped from Boston's Fleet Center, funny hats are at the ready, and delegates from across America and its territories are converging on what locals humbly call the Hub of the Universe.

For once, Boston will live up to its moniker, at least in the political world, in a quadrennial exercise best seen as a big, raucous pep rally. But for most Americans, the Democratic National Convention will be but a blip on the radar screen - if it registers at all. Political conventions are now designed to be news-free zones; expect no platform fights, no multiple ballots to settle on the nominees, no smoke-filled rooms.

Still, Democrats are counting on their four-day infomercial to achieve important goals. Senator Kerry remains an unknown to nearly a third of American voters, and the convention represents a signal opportunity to reach voters - particularly the sliver who remain undecided - with a message and an inkling of his character.

"Apart from the acceptance speeches, the only people watching will be base Democrats, hard-core political junkies, and Republican opposition researchers," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in California.

Indeed, the Democrats are so unified this time, so motivated to deny President Bush four more years, that any remaining entertainment value in the party's usually fractious mood may be hard to find. Expect some laugh lines from the Rev. Al Sharpton when he speaks on Wednesday, the charisma treatment from veep choice John Edwards the same night, and Mr. Kerry's best, smiling effort at a message Thursday that closes the deal with undecideds and rallies the faithful. And there's always the X factor lingering out there - actual news, such as the moment during the 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago, when Clinton adviser Dick Morris was outed for his messy personal life.

"Basically, (the convention) is a kind of spiritual rouser for core Democrats, and to some extent a kind of unity pageant; you'll get people there representing all wings of the party, and [Dennis] Kucinich will be mollified," says political scientist Ross Baker of Rutgers University, referring to the left-wing congressman who ran for the nomination and attracted a boutique following. "It's like a family reunion, in which some of the alienated cousins and uncles sit down for dinner, and someone says grace, and they all go away happy."

This convention will be marked by the least amount of broadcast TV coverage since the advent of televised politics in the 1960s. ABC, NBC, and CBS will each broadcast just three hours the entire week - former President Clinton's speech Monday night, Senator Edwards on Wednesday and Kerry Thursday. PBS will broadcast from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. all four nights. (The Republican convention, starting Aug. 29, will get the same number of hours.) For the rest, viewers must turn to cable.

The messages from each party and each candidate will be coming fast and furious from here on out, usually on multiple tracks. Wednesday night, Bush unveiled a new stump speech, though even some members of his own party, speaking on background, didn't find much new in it. A senior GOP Senate aide noted that Bush's speech included more talk of peace than usual, but did not represent a significant departure from his old campaign pitch.

"Kerry has yet to offer a coherent rationale for why he should be elected," says the aide. "Bush has yet to offer a coherent rationale for why he should be reelected."

Iraq remains the sharpest issue on the table, and pundits will be listening to the Democrats' message closely - particularly Kerry's - for any developments in his position. Still, many say, the senator's hands are largely tied, since he voted in October 2002 to approve the war.

"There will be a lot of emphasis on the failure of follow-through - the execution, rather than the original idea," says Professor Pitney.

Another feature to watch at this convention will be an unprecedented level of rapid response by both sides. The Republicans will have a team of responders on site in Boston with instant comebacks to every charge. When asked what he learned from watching his former boss, Massachusetts' ex-Gov. Michael Dukakis, go from a 17-point postconvention lead to losing badly in November 1988, Kerry routinely says the lesson is that no charge go unanswered.

His ground troops are holding up that pledge. The centrist Democratic Leadership Council has even put out a message challenging the magazine National Journal and its rating system, which puts Kerry in the solidly liberal column. The word "liberal" isn't quite the epithet it used to be, but in a race that remains neck and neck, every bit of message control counts.

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