Democrats' prescription for polarized country: John Kerry

Convention speakers portray Sen. Kerry as centrist alternative.

In a bit of political jujitsu, Democrats are seizing on one of President Bush's signature themes from the 2000 campaign - that he would be a uniter, not a divider - and are attempting to turn it against him.

In speech after speech, leading Democrats at their party's convention have highlighted the nation's polarized political landscape, and put the blame squarely on President Bush's divisive policies. Just as Mr. Bush once presented himself as a candidate who could bridge the bitter partisanship of the Clinton years, Democrats are now striving to portray Sen. John Kerry as someone who could bring together a nation - and a world - divided by war and other controversial issues.

On Monday, former President Bill Clinton took the lead in accusing Bush and the Republican Party of using cultural wedge issues for political gain, saying: "They need a divided America, but we don't."

Tuesday night, a range of Democratic heavyweights and rising stars expanded on the theme. Sen. Ted Kennedy criticized the administration for launching a "misguided war" that "alienated longtime allies." And he portrayed Bush as pitting groups of Americans against one another: "Urban against rural. City against suburb. Whites against blacks. Men against women. Straights against gays," he said. "America needs a genuine uniter, not a divider who only claims to be a uniter."

Although polls paint a picture of a nation evenly and deeply split along partisan lines - with Bush and Kerry still locked in a statistical dead heat - Democratic strategists say they believe voters yearn for a sense of unity, and would respond to a centrist leader who reached across the aisle. They also argue that Bush has become inextricably linked with an image of division, having squandered the goodwill in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, by pursuing controversial policies.

"It's a powerful issue," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, at a Monitor breakfast. "Bush is seen as divisive - the country thinks he divides the country."

Republicans counter that Democrats are the ones dividing the country with angry rhetoric. Although the Kerry campaign has stated they want a positive tone for the week, the parade of speakers has hardly shied away from criticizing George W. Bush. Although many have refrained from attacking the president directly by name, there have been a few barbs - such as Kennedy's twist on Roosevelt's famous line, "The only thing we have to fear is four more years of George Bush" - leading Republicans to accuse Democrats of launching harsh negative attacks on the president.

"This night exemplified the anger, pessimism, and negativity of the Democratic Party," said Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke in a statement.

But on the whole, the party is relying more on positive images of unity - from history or the speakers' own lives - to draw implicit contrasts with the current division and make the case that the president has failed.

A rebuke to red and blue

Tuesday's keynote speaker, Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama, spoke of his "unlikely" rise as the child of an immigrant goat-herder, and the image of a tolerant and generous America that he grew up believing in.

"As we speak there are those that are preparing to divide us," he said. "I say to them tonight there is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America."

He also countered the stereotypes put forward by pundits who "slice and dice" the country into red states and blue states, saying: "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

Significantly, the theme of unity also extended beyond the borders of the United States to include the larger global community - reinforcing John Kerry's message about the need to restore America's place as a respected leader in the world.

Teresa Heinz Kerry spoke of the image of America exemplified by Peace Corps volunteers, a "symbol of hope, a beacon brightly lit by the optimism of its people." Born in Mozambique, she gave a quick sampling of her language skills, greeting delegates in Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese. She also spoke of her father, who spent most of his life living under a dictatorship and cast his first vote in his 70s. "I know how precious freedom is," she said.

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