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Published: Thursday, 7/29/2004

Democratic convention poised for Kerry's acceptance speech tonight

BY MAEVE RESTON
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

BOSTON - As Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry spent his day polishing the speech he will give tonight as he accepts the Democratic nomination for the presidency, his wife, children and his running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, fanned out across Boston trying to build the suspense for the final night of the convention.

Teresa Heinz Kerry greeted hundreds of young voters at their caucus this afternoon - joined by Sean "P Diddy" Combs and leaders of other young voter groups.

"Good morning future, You are the Future," Heinz Kerry told the 18 to 35-year olds gathered at Hynes Hall in Downtown Boston, highlighting the role they could play in shaping the direction of the country at a time of war.

As she spoke about her own experience growing up in the third world under a dictatorship, she urged them to fight against the complacency of their age group and pointed to the high voter turnout in nations like South Africa where the right to vote is not taken for granted.

"We cannot be second class citizens because we are so spoiled," she said.

In his speech tonight, Kerry will promise to create what has now become the central theme of his campaign - an America safer at home and respected in the world.

Some of Kerry's closest confidants will introduce him - his Vietnam War crewmates, his Senate colleague Max Cleland and his daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa.

In the climate of rapid response that Republicans have created at the convention, they had already sent out a response to John Kerry's speech hours before he delivered it.

In a memo, the Republican National Committee said: "What we are not likely to hear tonight is the definitive answer on where John Kerry stands on Iraq or what exactly he would do differently in the War on Terror. Public opinion polls show that Americans have mounting concerns about John Kerry's record of indecision and vacillation."

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Edwards, the Democrats' newly minted vice presidential nominee, spent his day trying to negate those attacks as he met with delegates from around the country. In a final effort to rally supporters before Kerry's speech, he will hold a nationwide conference call with supporters at 7 p.m. The call is listen-only, for information go to www.johnkerry.com.

Laast night, Edwards took the stage of the Democratic National Convention to accept the party's vice presidential nomination and display his mastery of the role he will play through the November election: premier pitchman for Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, who will accept the party's nomination for the presidency this evening.

Using his own compelling story as the son of a mill worker who made millions as a trial lawyer and then turned to public service, Edwards strove to describe how he had come to admire Kerry, his rival in the presidential primaries and colleague in the Senate.

In one of the most emotional prime-time tributes to Kerry thus far in the convention, Edwards sketched his running mate as a man of courage and warmth who understands the darkest struggles of average Americans, a man who has moved beyond his patrician roots and elite education to become a committed fighter for common Americans.

Drawing on Kerry's experience as commander of a swift boat in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, Edwards tried to refute the central line of Republican attacks on Kerry, in which they portray him as lacking the core strength and resolve to lead the country in times of crisis.

"If you have any question of what [Kerry] is made of, you need to spend three minutes with men who served with him [in Vietnam]," Edwards said. "They saw him reach down and pull one of his men from the river and save his life. And in the heat of battle, they saw him decide in an instant to turn his boat around, drive it straight through an enemy position, and chase down the enemy to save his crew."

"Decisive. Strong. Is this not what we need in a Commander-in-chief?" he asked.

"When a man volunteers to serve his country, when a man volunteers and puts his life on the line for others - that's a man that represents real American values. This is a man who is prepared to keep the American people safe and to make America stronger at home and respected in the world."

Framing the Democratic ticket's vision for the next four years, Edwards returned to the "two-Americas" theme of his primary campaign, in which he describes the United States as separate nations, one for the wealthy and one for those who struggle to make ends meet.

"We can build one America.... We can strengthen and lift up your families. Your agenda is our agenda," he said, sketching the Kerry-Edwards campaign proposals to improve the health care system and create better paying jobs. Economic security would strengthen the nation at home and abroad at a time of war, he argued.

Edwards said Kerry's personal experiences in war would give him the credentials to fight the war on terrorism. "We will have one clear unmistakable message for al-Qaida.... We will destroy you," Edwards said.

Of those members of the military asked to protect the country, Edwards said, "They deserve a president who understands ...on the most personal level what they have gone through."

As he spoke of how he and Kerry would modernize the military and repair alliances with nations around the world to protect the country against terrorists, the first-term senator touched on his own national security credentials - widely viewed as a possible liability for the ticket -- by stressing his experience as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In keeping with Kerry's pledge to stay positive during convention week -- which was no stretch for a candidate noted for his optimistic primary campaign - Edwards did not once mention President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney.

"What John Kerry and I believe is that ... we should lift people up.... We believe in bringing people together," he said. "Join us in this cause. Let's make America stronger at home and respected in the world. Let's ensure that once again, in our one America - our one America -- tomorrow will always be better than today."

For Edwards, last night's speech marked a new pinnacle in a political career that began only six years ago when he challenged Republican incumbent Sen. Launch Faircloth for a seat in the U.S. Senate. He won by a slim margin, but the victory immediately sparked speculation that his good looks and spirited oratory might one day lead him to run for president.

Edwards' sunny message about rebuilding America over the last year won over numerous voters, but his candidacy gained little serious traction until the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses. In Iowa, he stunned the political establishment by trouncing former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and coming in a second to Kerry, whose seemingly moribund campaign was resurrected there.

Edwards was the last major candidate standing against Kerry by Super Tuesday on March 2 and the clear second choice among Democratic voters. His primary campaign showed that he could attract independent and even Republican voters, but in the end, Democrats said they were anxious that his thin political resume and foreign policy credentials would be too easy a target for the Bush campaign in the post-9/11 era.

As a running mate, however, Edwards is clearly an object of adoration and admiration among Democratic delegates, who raved about him as they cheered him wildly from the convention floor last night.

"What he brings is a total complement to John Kerry," said Paula Little, a 49-year old Edwards delegate from North Carolina and a political consultant. "Already we've seen how energizing it has been. After [Edward's] selection, I could see John Kerry becoming much more animated with the full package of the families and the two wives. It's just a total package now."

"Because of Edwards' youthfulness, his commitment and the way he grew up struggling on his own, he's like a common-folk person and people can relate," said Pennsylvania state Rep. Jewell Williams of Philadelphia. "I think that Kerry had the wisdom [needed for the ticket] but he had to have that magnet to draw more support and hit the cross-section of all walks of life."

The North Carolina senator was introduced last night by his wife of 27 years, Elizabeth Edwards, an accomplished lawyer who has in recent years stayed home to raise her two youngest children, 6-year old Emma Claire and 4-year old Jack. Elizabeth Edwards spoke of her husband as a "the smartest, toughest, sweetest man I know."

"I married him because he was the single most optimistic person I have ever known," Elizabeth Edwards said, in an appeal that was more revealing about her relationship with her husband than Teresa Heinz Kerry's speech about Kerry the night before.

"He knew there was a brighter day ahead even as he swept the floors in the cotton mill as a high school student," Elizabeth Edwards said. "He knew, if he worked hard enough, he could be the first in his family to go to college. He knew that he could outwork any battalion of lawyers to find justice, and he continued that fight in Washington courageously, eloquently, with one over-arching and simple goal: to make the great opportunities of America available to all Americans."

Republicans, who have described the convention as a cosmetic makeover of the Democratic candidates, have described Edwards as a slick, stridently liberal, disingenuous trial lawyer whose wealth puts him out of touch with mainstream Americans. In a press conference yesterday, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie brushed off the notion that Edwards could draw Southern voters to the Democratic ticket.

"I think the notion that rural voters and Southern voters are going to vote for someone who's so far outside the mainstream in his voting record because he talks with a drawl is condescending, frankly," Gillespie said.

In response to Edwards' speech last night, Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt said, "We saw John Kerry's running mate tonight portray America as a nation in decline, but the American people know we are strong and overcoming the challenges of the past three years. John Kerry's extreme makeover of adding a smile to his pessimistic rhetoric cannot change his out of the mainstream record."

Kerry arrived by boat in Boston harbor yesterday afternoon accompanied by his Vietnam War crewmates and supporters before heading home to rest his voice and put the final touches on tonight's acceptance speech. Kerry is expected to portray himself as caring, measured leader who would make America stronger and more secure.

Tomorrow, Kerry and Edwards will kick off a bus-plane-train tour across the country starting with an early morning rally in Boston. The team will travel first to Scranton and Harrisburg, Pa., then continue to Greensburg, Pa., Wheeling, W. Va. and Zanesville, Ohio this weekend.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign found some good news in a new poll of "persuadable" voters released yesterday by the National Annenberg Election Survey, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

In the poll, when asked to rank the two candidates, 41 percent of 'persuadable' voters said Kerry cares "more about people like me," and only 27 percent said the same of Bush. But among that same group, 42 percent ranked Bush higher when asked which candidate was the stronger leader; 28 percent ranked Kerry higher than Bush as a strong leader and 16 percent said they were the same.

Maeve Reston can be reached at mreston@post-gazette.com.



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