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Kerry enunciates his key issues: strength, safety, vision, leadership

DENVER — DENVER - Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry declared that America is neither safer nor stronger under President Bush's stewardship and said that when he accepts the party's nomination this week he will urge Americans to seriously ask themselves if they are satisfied with the nation's direction and place in the world.

The Massachusetts senator said in an interview that the Bush administration has pursued ideologically driven policies that have shattered global alliances, produced a burgeoning federal deficit and placed U.S. security in peril. He also dismissed White House claims that the war on terrorism has made America safer.

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"Safer is not the test," Kerry said, sharply articulating his words as he pointed to a bound volume of the bipartisan commission's report on the Sept. 11 attacks. "The test is whether you've made America as safe as it can be and should be, given the options we had available to us."

Kerry's four words

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As Kerry launched his pilgrimage to the Democratic convention in Boston, beginning the journey late last week near his birthplace in Colorado, he described how he intended to better introduce himself to voters through his acceptance speech and he previewed themes for the fall campaign.

Throughout an interview in his hotel, Kerry harked back to variations of four words: strong, safe, vision and leader. In a 23-minute session, one of a handful his campaign granted late last week, he said those words nearly four dozen times.

He shied away from the biting rhetoric of political rallies, choosing instead to portray his candidacy as a simple, positive choice.

"What Americans have to judge," Kerry explained, "is whether they're satisfied with where we are today versus where they think we can go."

The moment is upon Kerry to make a deep impression on a divided electorate and work to persuade voters that he has the character, leadership skills and trustworthiness to become president.

His military service, he said, is one chapter in his biography that enhances his readiness to serve in the Oval Office.

"I learned a lot personally about what happens when you're on the front lines carrying a gun, being asked to kill people for your country. Being shot at, you learn something about risk, about states, about duty and obligations," he said. "You learn a lot of questions to ask as a commander in chief before you put someone else in that predicament."

Despite Kerry's having served in Congress for 20 years, public opinion polls show voters are still getting to know him. Asked what he wants people to take away from the convention, Kerry promptly replied: "That I'm a strong leader who has a very clear vision for how we're going to make America stronger at home and respected in the world."

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Since Kerry sealed the nomination in March, Republicans have spent millions of dollars trying to depict him as an unprincipled waffler who will say or do anything for political gain.

But Kerry says he believes his leadership skills, which will be a central element of his Thursday night acceptance speech, will appeal to voters. He said he is still writing the speech - by hand, on a legal pad - despite the presence of the top-flight team of wordsmiths on his staff who often labor into the night perfecting his campaign addresses.

"This is a very special moment where it's important to know that I'm speaking not from someone else's gut, but from my gut and from my heart, and I want to make sure that I am," Kerry said. "I fought for this nomination. I'm running for president. I want to be the president. I want to be clear about why and about who I am and I think that has to come from me."

A positive message

Kerry went to great lengths to articulate a positive message as his campaign attempts to fight back against accusations in a Bush television commercial that he is dark and pessimistic. While his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, at campaign rallies often raises questions about the president's truthfulness, drawing smiles from Kerry, he demurred when asked whether Bush has been a credible or trustworthy leader.

"I'm running a positive and constructive campaign," Kerry said with a smile, "and it's up to the American people to make their judgment about each of us."

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More than three months before Election Day, polls show that Kerry is waging a competitive campaign. While the burden of convincing voters that Bush does not deserve a second term rests with Kerry, he said he takes solace in that at least half of the electorate seems to like the idea of turning the president out of office.

"Look, I'm in an unprecedented neck-and-neck and/or lead with a sitting president of the United States," Kerry said, "and I think we are succeeding in reaching people with a better vision."

When, as expected, he begins his general election campaign Friday, Kerry will embark on a 15-day, coast-to-coast journey through small-town America - the first presidential candidate to do so since Harry S. Truman and his whistle-stop tour in 1948.

"We just want to talk to America and we want to listen to America," Kerry said. "We really want to go out to real places with real people and have them talk to us and talk with them."

A stark choice

While Kerry pledges to abide by a positive campaign message, the clashes between the parties will begin anew when Republicans open their convention in late August in New York. Kerry left little question that he is ready to present voters a stark choice.

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"If they don't embrace the vision and they're satisfied with deficits going up as far as the eye can see, if they're satisfied that the world is more dangerous, if they're satisfied with no health care and losing it, if they're satisfied with schools that aren't adequately funded," Kerry said, "then they can vote the way they want to.

"Obviously, I'm running for president because I think I can do a better job," Kerry added. "It's up to the American people to make a judgment about whether or not they accept that."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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