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Published: Sunday, 8/1/2004

Out of the gate first

The four-day Democratic convention, which ended Thursday night in Boston, has given America its first up-close opportunity to scrutinize the party's presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry, his program, and his supporting cast of characters.

The centerpiece, of course, was Mr. Kerry's speech Thursday night. It was relatively free of direct attacks on President George W. Bush, although no one could have missed the trenchancy of his opening salute: "I am John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty."

Though Mr. Kerry's oratorical skills are no match for Bill Clinton's, he spoke with energy and passion. He fired up the crowd and appeared to unify his party, at least to the extent that Democrats can ever truly be unified.

Mr. Kerry staked out positions on the principal issues: how to fix the economy, how to level the playing field between rich and poor Americans, and how to address the problem of the environment.

Most important, given that Mr. Bush will argue that he, rather than Mr. Kerry, is the one best able to assure America's security, Mr. Kerry referred to his own war record as evidence of his ability to keep the nation safe. Referring to his fellow veterans from his Vietnam War experience, he said, "we still know how to fight for our country."

As for Iraq, Mr. Kerry pledged that he would never mislead America into war. He said that Mr. Bush's claim of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq "doesn't make it so," and he criticized the effort to fight the war on the cheap and his Republican opponent's premature proclamation of "mission accomplished" more than a year ago.

He said he would return to America's tradition of going to war only if it had to, not because it wanted to, taking a swipe at the still foggy antecedents of the Iraq war.

No doubt hearkening back to the Democratic Party's success in the 1992 and 1996 elections, achieved by running on the issue of better management of the economy, Mr. Kerry said he would strive to create "an America where we are all in the same boat."

No doubt also aware that he and running mate John Edwards personally are on the favored side of the rich-poor divide, as are their Republican opponents, he pledged to increase the taxes of those earning over $200,000 a year and cut the taxes of the middle class.

He addressed voters' economic fears on the reliability of Social Security, wages that fall short of needs, the outsourcing of jobs, and rising health-care costs, declaring "Help is on the way," a variation of the slogan launched the night before by Mr. Edwards and the likely mantra of the rest of this campaign.

Mr. Kerry paid tribute to his Democratic primary opponents, thanking them for teaching and testing him.

In fact, although the panoply of Democrats who spoke during the four days of the convention were a mixed bag, some of Mr. Kerry's supporting cast put forward star-quality performances.

Illinois senatorial candidate Barack Obama deserved an Oscar for his passionate keynote address.

Former President Jimmy Carter skewered Mr. Bush after having been cautioned not to, a triumph of age and stealth.

The Rev. Al Sharpton spoke the hard truth and reminded viewers again why it had been good to have him as part of the primary campaign.

In spite of earlier statements from the Bush Administration that frightened some Americans into thinking there might be a terrorist attack at the convention, or one aimed at the whole electoral process that might require the postponement of the elections themselves, nothing more than the business of the convention happened in Boston.

Whether that was due to extensive security precautions or to a lack of will or capacity on the part of the terrorists, we may never know.

Next up is the GOP convention, which will open Aug. 30 in New York and provide an equivalent opportunity to examine Mr. Bush. In the meantime, the candidates will be scurrying around the country, concentrating on Ohio and other swing states. Today the Democratic ticket is in Bowling Green.

In any case, last week gave Americans a chance to get to know Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, and to consider what difference it would make to the country if they, rather than Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney, occupied the White House.



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