Kerry offers selective self-portrait

BOSTON — BOSTON - More than 30 years after he burst into the national consciousness as a young antiwar leader, John Forbes Kerry forcefully introduced himself to America last night.

Standing before the country for the first time as the Democratic nominee for president, Kerry never mentioned his background as a Vietnam protester and skipped over a Washington career that stretches back nearly two decades.


Instead, he sketched a highly selective, shrewdly calculated self-portrait that he and his strategists hope will connect him in a personal way with voters, particularly the independents who will decide this year's election.

If the initial, rave reviews of network TV commentators are any indication, Kerry passed the test in what was repeatedly described as the most important speech of his life.


The image Kerry projected was of a serious-minded centrist who is convinced that he's more intelligent than President Bush and better able to lead the country through a dangerous time than the incumbent.

Projecting self-confidence and delivering his lines crisply, Kerry promised "a smarter, more effective war on terror" and, in an implicit criticism of Bush, added that "strength is more than tough words."

Kerry will never be as compelling an orator as a number of speakers who appeared at this week's convention, including former President Bill Clinton, keynoter Barack Obama or his running mate, John Edwards.

He lacks an instinctive ability to play on his listeners' emotions. But he accompished what he needed to with an address that was forceful throughout and, at times, uplifting.

As 100,000 red-white-and-blue balloons poured down and confetti filled the air inside the FleetCenter in downtown Boston, Democrats brought down the curtain on their most successful national convention since the 1992 edition that nominated Bill Clinton and helped lead to the defeat of President George H.W. Bush.

Kerry succeeded in producing the most important by-product of a modern acceptance speech: an ample supply of soundbites that will play out on television newscasts in the next day or more.

The country's diminished appetite for politics has made post-convention news media coverage even more important in molding public opinion than the relatively puny audiences that watch them live.

The lanky 60-year-old's effort at self-definition began before he opened his mouth to speak: with a symbolic effort to demonstrate a common touch.


A Boston aristocrat married to one of the nation's wealthiest women, he entered the jammed-to-the-rafters convention hall from the floor. Never known as a back-slapper, he made his way, handshaking, to the podium, as 20,000 partisans roared.

The somewhat contradictory task facing Kerry last night was to humanize himself, by revealing more of his inner self, while proving that he is tough enough to keep the country safe against terrorism.

He met head-on the Bush campaign's criticism of him as indecisive and a flip-flopper, insisting that he sees "complexities ... because some issues just aren't all that simple."

Then, he turned the attack back on Bush, criticizing his handling of the war on Iraq without mentioning the president by name (or the fact that Kerry and his running mate voted for Bush's war resolution).

"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," he said to cheers, as thousands of delegates waved white "Kerry" standards.

Kerry repeatedly returned to his combat service - his strongest credential in the first post-9/11 election, in which national security is a central issue.


He credited his parents and his boyhood hero, John F. Kennedy, with spurring his interest in public service and at one point evoked in personal terms what it was like to be a young American officer in Vietnam.

Unusually reserved for an American politician, particularly a Democrat, Kerry made no attempt to use self-deprecating humor, or any other kind, for the most part. Voters searching for deeper answers to what makes him tick will have to wait for another time to learn that.

Notoriously long-winded, he chose to deliver a long speech - and got through it in a very palatable 45 minutes. Seldom able to stick to a prepared text, he didn't wander from the script, leaving the networks with enough time to praise him to the skies in their post-speech analyses.

Fellow Democrats had described last night's address as crucial to gaining support from voters who are souring on Bush but aren't sure that Kerry can handle the job of president.

"In the end, he has to close the sale. No one else can do it," said Rep. Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago.

The success of his sales pitch, and a rigidly controlled, dissension-free Democratic convention that stayed relentlessly "on message," will be gauged in a flurry of new poll readings over the next few days.


But the dead-even presidential contest will be strongly influenced, as well, by this fall's campaign debates and perhaps by other, as yet unforeseen events, including mistakes by one candidate or the other and developments at home and abroad.

Carefully following the strictures that his campaign imposed on the others who strode the podium's dark blue carpeting this week, Kerry avoided strident personal criticism of Bush and struck an upbeat, optimistic tone at the close.

He had the luxury of largely skipping the red-meat appeals that would have thrilled the Bush-hating Democrats in the hall but would likely turn off many of the independent swing voters both sides are fiercely pursuing.

Democrats had already united behind Kerry, largely because of their desire to reclaim power in the White House. His performance last night almost certainly gained him the boost in the polls his campaign wanted, though how large and for how long remains to be seen.

Kerry plans an aggressive post-convention campaign schedule, starting with a two-week coast-to-coast swing that kicks off today, in an effort to avoid the late-summer pitfalls of a presidential campaign.

His strategists, many with deep Massachusetts roots, learned a lesson from former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' disastrous decision in 1988, when he retreated to the Bay State after the convention, squandering a 17-point post-convention lead over Bush's father.


But Kerry faces a new risk, created by the latest campaign law and the decision of party leaders to hold their convention more than a month before the Republicans.

Kerry's campaign is "going dark" - pulling its ads off the air - during August, in order to open the fall campaign on equal footing with Bush. Both candidates will have $75 million in public money for the general election, but Bush won't have to dip into his until early September, when he accepts the Republican nomination.

Other Democratic organizations, including the national party and several independent groups, will spend tens of millions of dollars on Kerry's behalf during August. However, the law prohibits them from coordinating most of their efforts with the nominee, so Kerry strategists will have less control over the campaign in the next month.

That might help explain Kerry's unusual offer to Bush last night. Rather than challenge the president to "Bring it on!" as he did in the primaries, he asked Bush to join him in making the election "a contest of big ideas, not small-minded attacks."

Regardless of how Bush responds - candidates seldom, if ever, stick to clean-campaign pledges, even if they make them - Kerry has seized the high ground in the campaign. And Bush surely knows now, if he didn't already, that he's in the fight of his political life.



Sen. Kerry campaigns in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan in the next three days.

President Bush campaigns in Missouri, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania in the next two days.

Republican Nation Convention in New York City runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2