The main purpose of this week's Democratic convention is to sell John Kerry as a commander in chief. His Thursday night speech, especially, will be the sales pitch of his career.
He's in a dead heat with George Bush, and while polls show him beating Mr. Bush on leading issues of the economy and healthcare, he doesn't seem able to pull past the incumbent "war president" on combating terrorism. Neither can he best Bush in the category of "strong and decisive leader," qualities desirable of a president in wartime.
Mr. Kerry and the Democrats are well aware of their vulnerability. Terrorism and Iraq compete with the economy as the country's No. 1 concerns. They plan to use this week's convention to showcase the decorated Vietnam War veteran not only as a courageous war hero who understands combat from the perspective of the troops but as a strong leader capable of running a war. Security plays an unusually large role in this year's Democratic platform, with the party pledging to increase the military by 40,000 troops, and to stay the course in Iraq to prevent a failed state and terrorist nest.
Except for the many ways the Iraq war was pitched and conducted, Kerry agrees with Bush's major anti-terrorism policies. That's probably safe for him politically, and, in most wars, good for the country, too; an enemy shouldn't be able to take advantage of a political split in the US during a war.
Kerry claims he would work more closely with US allies than Bush has. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, Bush alienated several key allies, such as France and Germany. With the recent transfer of limited authority to Iraqis and the drive toward Iraqi elections, those tensions have slackened. Bush has also been forced to seek more allied help. Yet his record of ignoring allies in antiterrorism policies still hurts him, while Kerry would offer a fresh start.
A key question for the future, though, is whether Kerry would hesitate to take action if many allies objected to a proposed US course, such as bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. Bush waited months for the UN to approve war on Iraq, but then lined up only a few allies, and went in without the UN flag. How long would Kerry have waited? And how much will he tailor US interests to the interests of allies in future antiterrorist plans?
Kerry also seems to differ from Bush by appearing more eager to use negotiations instead of confrontation with states that sponsor terrorism. Example: He would talk directly with North Korea, offering carrots for that country to disarm its nuclear program. Bush prefers indirect talks with the North in multilateral negotiations, and a hard-line stance on any compromises. But then Bush was able to work with other nations to persuade Libya to give up its WMD program.
On a broader level, Kerry could redefine the overall target of US action.
Is Bush accurate in summing up the terrorists as simply freedom haters? Does the US need to change positions in the Middle East, such as bringing more pressure on Israel and Palestinians to compromise, or backing off support for the Saudi royals?
Bush deftly met one of Al Qaeda's demands by removing US forces from Saudi Arabia after the US liberated Iraq. They were no longer needed as defense against Hussein's Iraq.
Would Kerry try to finesse other Al Qaeda demands, such as ending US support for Russian suppression of militant Muslims? His plan to end US dependence on the Saudi regime - which has had a hard time suppressing radical versions of Islam by mullahs - is to wean the US from Middle East oil over 10 years by spending more on non-oil energy projects. That's a worthy, distant goal, but not a quick fix for an immediate problem.
Kerry casts his approach to security as more "thoughtful" and "effective" than the president's. But that perhaps reinforces voter perceptions that he's not strong and decisive enough. His checkered Senate voting record doesn't help: "no" on the Gulf War during Bush I, "yes" on the Iraq War during Bush II, and "no" to $87 billion in military spending to support the war in Iraq.
He has explanations for these variations, but apparently they aren't getting through. As millions watch, he'll get another crack at that.