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Planting a Flag on Bush’s Turf

Times Staff Writer

Sen. John F. Kerry capped a Democratic convention centered on his Vietnam experiences with an acceptance speech that seemed the political equivalent of a surprise attack on an enemy’s strongest point.

In a confident and combative address, Kerry signaled his determination to fight the fall campaign on terrain that the White House has long assumed would belong to President Bush: strength, integrity, values and the prosecution of the war on terror.

Kerry directly appropriated Vice President Dick Cheney’s convention chant from 2000 that “help is on the way.” Flipping Bush’s signature pledge from 2000 to “restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office,” Kerry pledged to “restore trust and credibility to the White House.”

Challenging Bush’s claim to better represent mainstream social values, Kerry said, “It is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families.” Most pointedly, Kerry insisted he would be more effective than Bush in directing the struggle against terrorism. “As president, I will fight a smarter, more effective war on terror,” he said flatly.

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The speech capped a four-day gathering that emphasized national security -- and deployed martial imagery -- more aggressively than any Democratic convention in decades: It may have been the party’s first gathering in modern times to feature more generals on stage than teachers.

Above all, the convention, and Kerry’s speech itself, seemed designed to reassure Americans that it was safe to take the unsettling step of replacing the commander in chief during a time of war.

“On security, on patriotism, there is no kind of conceding, no changing subjects, no dancing around difficult issues,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. “I think it is a psychological blow aimed right at the crux of the Republican argument.”

Yet the speech left openings Republicans will seek to exploit in the weeks ahead. It offered no new details on Kerry’s plans for stabilizing Iraq. Nor did Kerry clearly say whether he believed the war was a mistake.

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Like the speakers that preceded him, Kerry said little about his career in the Senate -- thus providing little new defense for a voting record the Bush campaign has harshly criticized. And by placing greater emphasis on new spending proposals than how he would pay for them, he could leave some voters wondering whether he can fund his agenda solely by rescinding Bush’s tax cuts for the affluent.

Kerry stuck almost entirely to familiar grooves. He unveiled no new policies or major new themes -- as Al Gore did in his acceptance speech, when he defined the 2000 race as a competition between “the people and the powerful,” or Bill Clinton did in 1992, when he offered himself as the man “from Hope.”

Most of Kerry’s arguments, and even most of his phrases, were familiar to those who followed him during the campaign.

But, in an address that offered a comprehensive critique of Bush’s agenda and his style of leadership, he made a greater effort to tell his life story and present his agenda as the outgrowth of that life. That effort was most pronounced on the national security issues that dominated the first half of his speech.

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Without directly saying that he believed the war in Iraq was a mistake, Kerry strongly suggested his own experience in combat would make him more cautious than Bush about sending American troops into such a war again.

“As president, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war,” Kerry said in one of his most pointed phrases. “Before you go into battle, you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say: ‘I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm’s way. But we had no choice.’ ”

The extravagance of the praise lavished on Kerry during the convention’s first nights may have raised the bar for him on its last. Americans repeatedly heard him described as “decisive,” “strong” and “courageous.”

And on Thursday, Max Cleland, the former senator from Georgia who lost three limbs in Vietnam, described him as “an authentic American hero” in introducing him. Kerry’s crewmate from Vietnam, the Rev. David Alston, portrayed Kerry almost as a character from an Ernest Hemingway novel, all stoic grace under pressure.

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“I can still see him now, standing in the doorway of the pilothouse, firing his M-16, shouting orders through the smoke and chaos,” Alston told the delegates. “Even wounded, or confronting sights no man should ever have to see, he never lost his cool.”

It was a riveting picture -- but one that sought to define Kerry’s core by reaching back before he began a political career of more than two decades. Republicans are trying to use Kerry’s political record to paint a portrait considerably less heroic -- one marked by vacillation, not resolve, expediency, not command.

One test for Kerry with his speech was whether he could convincingly wear the clothes that his friends and supporters had stitched for him. Many initial reactions were favorable.

“The major consequence of this speech is the American public saw him in a very effective way talk about what he thinks and who he is,” said Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, an independent polling organization. “I don’t think he could have done much better.”

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Gesturing freely, Kerry seemed a bit off-tempo at first, but quickly found a rhythm. For most of his speech, he was relaxed, yet animated; if he wasn’t folksy, he often sounded authoritative. He spoke almost entirely in punchy, declarative sentences designed to exude strength and conviction.

Also striking was the extent to which it fell to Kerry to define the Democrats’ domestic agenda. The last four days have witnessed an unexpected event: a Democratic convention in which the party’s message on national security was more fully formed than that on domestic issues.

Concluding with Kerry’s speech, the party presented a consistent and integrated critique of Bush’s strategy for protecting America after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They have accused Bush of alienating the world, and slighting homeland security, in favor of an excessively ideological reliance on military force, symbolized in the decision to invade Iraq.

Former President Clinton powerfully reduced that argument to a bumper sticker Monday when he declared, in the convention’s single most memorable phrase, “Strength and wisdom are not opposing values.”

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Kerry strongly amplified those arguments.

He promised to win more cooperation from allies and implied that he would be more discriminating than Bush in rejecting “simple” answers and acknowledging the “complexities” of the choices America faces in the world.

But he repeated earlier vows to “never give any nation or any institution a veto over our national security” and to “never hesitate to use force when it is required.”

On domestic issues, both the Democratic case against Bush, and the explanation of Kerry’s alternative, have been far more diffuse.

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“What is still missing ... is the argument on the non-national security stuff,” said Harold M. Ickes, a former top Clinton advisor who directs the Media Fund, an independent group supporting Kerry. “There are a lot of elements, but I don’t think they have framed it yet.”

Kerry moved toward that goal with a lengthy exploration of his domestic agenda and an extended indictment of Bush’s performance.

But the speech was more about projecting values. Whether on the Iraq war and foreign policy, or the economy and the needs of the poor, Kerry sought to portray his priorities as the culmination of a life committed to service.

Kerry tried to reveal his values in many ways. He spoke more openly than usual about his religious faith. But he drew the most powerful expression of his values from Vietnam -- and the Swift boat where he served with young men from lives far less privileged than his own.

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“No one cared about our race or our backgrounds,” Kerry said. “We were literally all in the same boat.... This is the kind of America I will lead as president -- an America where we are all in the same boat.”

In a sense, Kerry is still in that boat.

Kerry and Bush will tussle over many issues, from healthcare to tax cuts to gay marriage. But this week has made clear that Kerry is betting his hopes largely on the belief that his experience in that boat just over 35 years ago will convince Americans they can trust him to protect them in a world where terrorists fly planes into buildings.

That gamble frames perhaps the largest question raised by Kerry’s rousing speech and much of the three nights that preceded it: In deciding whether to grant Kerry four years in the White House, will Americans place as much weight as he hopes on his four months in Vietnam?

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Notable speakers

For some speakers at this weekÕs Democratic National Convention, their turns at the podium signaled new stages in their political careers.

Barack Obama Age: 42 The overwhelming favorite to win a Senate seat in Illinois, the state senator drew a rousing response and rave reviews for his keynote speech on Tuesday. The Chicago Tribune said he had entered the Òno-last-name-neededÓ world, but also wondered: ÒCan a star be born before the electionÕs been won.Ó Quote: ÒThereÕs not a liberal America and a conservative America Ñ thereÕs the United States of America. ThereÕs not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; thereÕs the United States of America.Ó

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Former President Clinton Age: 57 Easing his way into elder states-man status, on Monday he made a case against President Bush that stirred delegates. He passed the torch of Democratic leadership to Sen. John F. Kerry, while maintaining his place as the partyÕs icon in chief. Quote: ÒStrength and wisdom are not conflicting values.Ó

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy Age: 72 He gave an exacting critique of the Bush administration, but the senior Massachusetts senatorÕs speech received a relatively tepid reception. His Òdream will never dieÓ speech stole the show at the 1980 convention; his Tuesday remarks may be remembered as a last hurrah. Quote: “The goals of the American people are every bit as high as they were more than 200 years ago. If America is failing to reach them today, itÕs not because our ideals need replacing, itÕs because our president needs replacing.Ó

Rep. Nancy Pelosi Age: 64 The House Democratic leader from San Francisco has attended every Democratic convention since 1960 (her father was mayor of Baltimore). But this was her first as the partyÕs highest-ranking woman, and it landed her a prominent speaking spot Thursday. Quote: Ò And with our clear message, Democrats will win the House of Representatives in November.Ó

The Rev. Al Sharpton Age: 49 He may not have gotten a prime speaking spot, but he rocked the hall with a call to action by liberals. Already signed to do a reality show and commentary on TV, his credibility as a spokesman for liberal causes may have gotten a boost. Quote: ÒThe issue of government is not to determine who may sleep together in the bedroom, itÕs to help those who might not be eating in the kitchen.Ó

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