John Kerry has been called aloof, patrician, and formal. Repeatedly, the Democrats' presidential candidate fails the "barbecue" test against President Bush. That is, voters say they would rather have Bush over to their backyard barbecue than Senator Kerry.
But with the nation under constant threat of terrorist attack and more than 135,000 American troops in Iraq, the 2004 election isn't about choosing a next-door neighbor, analysts say. It's about electing a president who can lead at a time of challenge on every front - on security at home and abroad, and on kitchen-table issues, such as jobs and healthcare.
For months, polls have shown a slim majority of voters as unhappy with Bush's overall job performance and with the direction of the nation. But that majority hasn't shown a willingness to take the next step: throw the incumbent out of office and put a new man in his place. And therein lies Kerry's biggest challenge when he addresses the nation Thursday night - he must begin to persuade enough Americans to vote for change in uncertain times. "The one thing Kerry has to do is establish that he's qualified to be president in a time of war - war on terror, war in Iraq," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. "If he doesn't pass that threshold, then even if people are unhappy with George Bush, George Bush can still win."
That's where Kerry's biography and life experience enter the picture, analysts say. Almost a third of voters still say they don't know enough about Kerry to have an opinion of him, and Thursday night's speech will be many Americans' first unfiltered look at him. "It's a tough speech, obviously," says Robert Borosage, codirector of the liberal Democratic group Campaign for America's Future. "This is his introduction to a lot of Americans. He puts out both the story of his own values and how they come out of his experience and how that relates to their situation."
Much has been made of Kerry's formal speaking style. Last September, when Kerry was preparing his announcement speech - and struggling in the primaries against the Democrats' then-darling, Howard Dean - Kerry's campaign manager brought in a young speechwriter to help the candidate craft a more contemporary style. Both that manager and speechwriter are now gone.
Now in Kerry's inner circle is veteran wordsmith Bob Shrum, famous for the soaring rhetoric that Sen. Ted Kennedy used in his 1980 Democratic convention speech and for steering Al Gore toward a more populist message at the end of the 2000 race. For any candidate, say students of political rhetoric, the key is for him to speak in his own voice - even if that comes across as formal. Seriousness can translate into gravitas, says Ms. Jamieson.
Democrats can argue that a sober demeanor is required of a president in a serious time. "That's the way he's been talking for 30 years," says David Kusnet, a former speech- writer for President Clinton. "He found his voice at a time when the dominant orators were John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr."
The words will be just as important, and if the goal of Thursday night's speech is to attract more votes from the ranks of the undecided, he should convey that he has a plan for the country that is moderate and responsible, says Ms. Jamieson. "Swing voters are more moderate," she says. "Americans need to feel that in an unanticipated moment, he will act in the country's interest."
In particular, some viewers will be looking for a clarity that many feel they haven't seen yet on what he would do about Iraq. Kerry's position - that the US should keep its forces there until the situation is stable - is not all that different from Bush's. And Kerry tends to speak in long, nuanced sentences, not sound bites. Going overtly negative against Bush is not part of the Kerry game plan, his team has stressed. But even though the Democrats promised a positive convention, the first nights have contained their share of digs - subtle and not so subtle - against the president.
In a bit of political jujitsu, Democrats are seizing on one of 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 have highlighted the nation's polarized landscape, and put the blame on Bush's divisive policies. Just as Bush once presented himself as a candidate who could bridge the bitter partisanship of the Clinton years, Democrats are now striving to portray Kerry as someone who could bring together a nation - and a world - divided by war and other controversial issues.
Although polls show a nation split along partisan lines - with Bush and Kerry still locked in a dead heat - Democratic strategists say they believe voters yearn for a sense of unity and would respond to a centrist leader. They argue that Bush has become inextricably linked with an image of division, having squandered global goodwill in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Though many have refrained from attacking the president by name, there have definitely been barbs, leading Republicans to accuse Democrats of launching harsh 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.
• Staff writer Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.