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Published: Sunday, 8/1/2004

Democrats excellent adventure

BOSTON Before the two Johns excellent adventure in Boston, the presidential race was too close to call. After the $95 million infomercial known as the Democratic National Convention, the race is too close to call.

The Democrats did a good job in the birthplace of the nation.

The balloons were great. Unity was the byword. The array of speakers was crisp, good-looking, and largely on message a notable exception being the always-unpredictable Al Sharpton. (Perhaps too on message. The Democrats seem to have invented a speech-writing machine that makes everyone sound the same.) Security was a little overwhelming this reporter lost an umbrella, an orange, and a small bottle of fingernail polish to nervous security guards.

John Edwards hair was perfect, and his speech was meaty with emotional lines, feeding the delegates the morsels of hope is on the way that they craved.

John Kerry s hair was also very nice, and he was presidential. He met the challenge set by his speechwriter and his media savant that he come off like a human being. The men who served with him in Vietnam and still stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him are terrific people patriotic, honorable, heroic veterans.

All the children showcased were fresh, well-behaved, attractive, and committed. (No visible tattoos, no nose rings, no orange hair, no protruding midriffs.)

The wives were modern and attractive and said nice things about their husbands. Teresa Heinz Kerry seemed sophisticated yet warm. Elizabeth Edwards, a lawyer who had two more children in middle age after a son was killed in an auto accident, seemed the earth-mother type.

So what s the problem for Democrats? Uncertainty.

And what s the problem for Republicans? War.

They balance each other out. And, as a result, we still have two equal camps 44 percent who will vote for Mr. Kerry no matter what, and 44 percent who will vote for President Bush no matter what. So 12 percent of likely voters (and you know who you are) will decide the election.

From talking to delegates, it seems that many Democrats are more passionate about moving Mr. Bush out of the White House than they are about Mr. Kerry moving in. Still, Mr. Kerry is growing on voters.

But Mr. Kerry is having trouble convincing the 12 percent of persuadable voters that we should change horses midstream. A lot of people are nervous about a Kerry team getting up to speed at a time when evil lurks in the heart of al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda lurks everywhere.

Mr. Bush s problem is that he still doesn t seem on top of the job. There is pure anger about the war in Iraq and the web of deceit that enveloped its beginning.

The Republican National Convention in New York at the end of August will amount to four days of homage to Mr. Bush s leadership and vision. But the truth is, many of the undecided are disaffected moderate Republicans who secretly wonder what in the world George W. Bush is doing.

So the conventions this year, as usual, are rallying the party faithful. But the polls right now are absolutely meaningless. The bounce each party gets after its convention has almost no bearing these days on the outcome in November as 2000 clearly showed, when Al Gore went from 13 percent behind to 5 percent ahead after his convention.

There s been a lot of grumbling in Boston about the lack of major-network coverage despite the importance of this election. On the other hand, much of what happened in Boston was boring and predictable, including the omnipresence of actor Ben Affleck.

Americans have three months to decide who they want in the White House a Boston Brahmin who went to Yale, served in the Senate for 20 years, and believes that the country is heading in the wrong direction; or a Texan who went to Yale, is the son of a former president, and thinks the country is heading in the right direction.

Prediction: Barring another terrorist attack, which would prompt voters to re-elect Mr. Bush, this election will hinge on the debates between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush in Miami, St. Louis, and Phoenix this fall. Not until then will the undecideds make up their minds.



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