Kerry clears credibility test

Acceptance speech makes broad appeal to nation.

John Kerry had two principal tasks Thursday night: Distinguish himself from the incumbent president he hopes to unseat. And - for that majority of Americans who still know little about him - distinguish himself from the unflattering portrait being painted by Republicans.

The coming weeks will determine whether or not he succeeded. But the immediate response from nonpartisan observers is a thumbs up.

"I thought he did what he wanted to do, which is come across as strong, well-informed, and presidential in appearance," says William Lunch, head of the political science department at Oregon State University.

Though he's been an elected official for most of his adult life, Kerry's job Thursday night was similar to the one his early political idol - a much younger John F. Kennedy - faced 44 years ago: Introduce himself to people in a way that makes them feel comfortable with his persona and with the idea of him occupying the Oval Office for the next four years.

"Kerry did what Kennedy did in his first debate with Richard Nixon - presented himself as a credible candidate," says John Allen Williams, professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago.

"He was optimistic, he was articulate, and he was bright," says Dr. Williams, who describes himself as fairly conservative. "He did what he needed to do."

But that's just the beginning for the officially anointed Democratic candidate for the presidency.

Whether or not he receives the typical post-convention "bounce" in the polls, and even though he's about as strongly positioned as any presidential challenger in a generation, Kerry already faces what is likely to be a sharp critique of his record and his positions. And his opponents were quick to take head-on his actions and pronouncements on the two traditional campaign issues: peace and prosperity.

"John Kerry missed an opportunity to help the American people understand his vote for the war in Iraq based on the same intelligence that the president viewed, his description of himself as an antiwar candidate, and his subsequent vote against troops on the front lines," charges Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign. (The "no" vote Mr. Racicot referred to was on the $87 billion in extra funds to pay for US forces in Iraq once it became clear that the war and occupation there would be more than had been anticipated.)

Just as Kerry was about to give his speech, Racicot and GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie sent out a memo charging, among other things: "While he has promised to pay for his healthcare and education plans by raising taxes on people who make more than $200,000 a year, he still comes up billions of dollars short."

But for Kerry to have dwelled, either defensively or offensively, on the details of his record or of his proposals could have been soporific at a time when he crucially needed to soar - or at least rise - above anything that might have confirmed his reputation for wonkishness and flip-flopping.

He did acknowledge that "there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities - and I do - because some issues just aren't all that simple."

In a direct jab at Bush, he said: "Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn't make it so. Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn't make it so. And proclaiming mission accomplished certainly doesn't make it so."

Kerry did promise several things: cutting the deficit in half in four years, cutting middle class taxes while repealing Bush's tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 a year, investing in new energy technologies and alternative fuels, and recruiting allies to help rebuild Iraq.

"Strength" has been the mantra of this convention, and Kerry also sounded a military theme that was notably hawkish - especially for a Democrat in recent decades. Having come onstage surrounded by the men he fought with in Vietnam, he promised "to wage this war with the lessons I learned in war."

"I will never hesitate to use force when it is required," Kerry said, promising to add 40,000 active duty troops to the US military, to double the number of Special Forces troops, and to provide American soldiers "with the newest weapons and technology to save their lives - and win the battle."

Role of faith

Like John F. Kennedy, John Kerry is a Roman Catholic. And like Kennedy, Kerry felt it necessary to address the issue of faith. But in this case it seemed directed in particular at those undecided voters who may feel uncomfortable about religiosity in public political discourse.

"I don't wear my own faith on my sleeve," he said, invoking what Ron Reagan had said of his late father. "But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday. I don't want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side."

Much has been made of the polarized nature of American politics today - the "red state-blue state" phenomenon and the relatively small percentage of voters who haven't made up their mind who they'll vote for. That, plus the competitiveness of the candidates - and especially their surrogates - could mean an especially nasty campaign. Kerry seems to understand that.

"I want to address these next words directly to President George W. Bush," he said. "In the weeks ahead, let's be optimists, not just opponents. Let's build unity in the American family, not angry division. Let's honor this nation's diversity; let's respect one another; and let's never misuse for political purposes the most precious document in American history, the Constitution of the United States."

President Bush, who's left the public glare to Kerry during the Democratic convention week, is about to re-emerge into the spotlight. Friday morning, he is scheduled to travel to Missouri, Michigan, and Ohio for campaign stops emphasizing the progress that's been made during his first term. Energized by his convention send-off, Kerry too is hitting the road Friday for what is likely to be a hard-fought election fight between now and November.

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