First step for Democrats: rousing the faithful

Democratic power hitters swing for Kerry in convention opener.

His name was barely mentioned, but President Bush may have had the biggest role in Monday night's kickoff to the Democratic National Convention. The man who four years ago pledged to be a "a uniter, not a divider" acted as the unseen glue, bringing together a star-studded array of Democratic leaders determined to make him a one-term president.

How well did the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton do Monday night toward that end? The next 100 days will tell.

But it's the next three days - leading up to John Kerry's speech accepting his party's nomination - that could be most crucial.

With the country starkly polarized, Kerry needs to show that he's a solid alternative to Bush - not only to that thin sliver of undecided voters but also to those moderate Republicans who may be sufficiently put off by a GOP they feel leans too sharply toward the Christian right and neoconservatives.

The first step

The first step in that effort is rousing the Democratic faithful, getting them energized, not just in opposition to Bush, but with enthusiastic support for Kerry. More than four months after dominant primary victories secured his nomination, Kerry remains largely unknown. Monday night's convention events sought to paint the Kerry portrait to the nation - or at least its politically minded television viewers - adding brush strokes of strength, competence, experience, and vision to the Massachusetts senator's persona.

If there was going to be a red-meat speech Monday night, Al Gore seemed most likely to give it. Unrestrained by any chance that his political career might be revived, he's been breathing fire in his recent speeches.

Bashing Bush for alleged lies, deceits, and general mismanagement of the country in a time of war, he has growled and bellowed his message in a manner Howard Dean, whom he first endorsed, might have found admirable.

But Monday night he was a subdued ex-vice president, offering relatively gentle criticisms of the incumbent whom he never mentioned by name.

It was left to Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter to wage war on the Bush II presidency. Speaking with quiet fury, Mr. Carter noted how the days after 9/11 had brought "an unprecedented level of cooperation and understanding around the world."

"But in just 34 months, we have watched with deep concern as all this goodwill has been squandered by a virtually unbroken series of mistakes and miscalculations," he said. "Unilateral acts and demands have isolated the United States from the very nations we need to join us in combating terrorism."

Keynote speaker Bill Clinton, too, took apart the Bush record, although like everyone else Monday night, he never uttered the president's name. Clinton's legacy will always be controversial, whether you see him as having sullied the office in immoral fashion or as the victim of a "right-wing conspiracy." Having the former president get the major chunk of prime-time TV Monday night was a gamble for Kerry. In his own way, Clinton was - and still is for some - as polarizing as Bush.

Still, Clinton's point-by-point exposition of US politics today - laying out the fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans - was as clear a description of the coming fight as is likely to be heard this week. And like all the speakers, Clinton kept turning the issues back to Kerry as being the man who has what it takes to redirect a nation that, according to one recent poll, 48 percent of Americans feel is on the wrong track.

In a way, all of this - the picture of unity, the rousing of the faithful for the fight, the image of the party as broadly representative of the country - is commonly considered to be political kabuki, highly-scripted and choreographed. Television has made it so, as has the lack of any real competition or doubt about convention outcomes. It's been that way for at least a generation.

The assembled delegates - replete with ridiculous hats and dancing - reinforced the night's theme: unity of purpose and diversity of audience, with lots of women (including a special tribute to female Democrats in the US Senate), and lots of racial and ethnic minorities.

Kerry's job is to close the gap between the 47 percent who say they will vote for him, and the 53 percent who say they want someone other than Bush.

Beyond the party luminaries

It may well be that, except for the candidate and his running mate themselves, the most important speakers this week will not be the party luminaries.

As it did Monday night, the rest of the week will feature a recurring theme: Kerry's wartime experience, not only because it contrasts with Bush's more-limited military service in the Texas National Guard, but because some believe it may reveal character and therefore leadership potential in a way that little else can or does. And here, the most effective speakers are likely to be those who served with Kerry in the armed patrol boats frequently under fire in Vietnam.

Although support of Kerry is not unanimous among his wartime colleagues, most of those who fought alongside him have rallied to his cause. One of the last speakers Monday night was David Alston, a man who served under Kerry's command. Now a minister in Columbia, South Carolina, the Rev. Alston said Kerry, "was known for taking the fight to the enemy."

"Lieutenant Kerry always showed judgment, loyalty, and courage," said Alston. "I came to love and respect him as a man I could trust with life itself."

It's that kind of testimony that may make the difference for John Kerry.

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