BOSTON - John Kerry came home yesterday, greeted by former Vietnam crewmates under the masts of Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution.
The martial stagecraft was part of the Democrats' competition with the Bush administration to convince voters of who would make the better commander in chief in a post-9/11 world. That issue has been central to both campaign as they crafted their responses to the recommendations of the 9/11 commission.
Mr. Kerry claimed that President Bush had been passive in reacting to the recommendations and said that, if elected, he would implement a list of the recommendations - such as a restructuring of the CIA - immediately.
Campaign statements reflect efforts by both camps to embrace the report and find in it arguments for their own positions. Kevin Madden, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, questioned the Democrat's motives as he rejected the charges.
"The President has said he is going to act very quickly," Mr. Madden said. "He's finalizing the details now. John Kerry, unfortunately, is trying to politicize the issue."
Public confidence in the administration's handling of the war in Iraq has eroded significantly over the last year, but Mr. Bush has continued to hold an edge on who would best handle the threat of terrorism. In one poll released yesterday Mr. Kerry had gained on the President among voters whose ballots were still up for grabs on a variety of issues, but the President retained an edge in perceptions of who would make the stronger leader.
The Kerry campaign buttressed its national security argument with a joint endorsement of the Democratic presidential candidate by 12 retired admirals and generals. That was in keeping with a convention that has seldom strayed from the portrayal of Mr. Kerry as a figure of strength.
The platform is dominated by pledges to strike against terrorism, and the overall slogan, proclaimed in displays throughout FleetCenter, is "A Stronger America."
In briefings yesterday, Kerry advisers touted his foreign policy proposals and contended that they would make the nation safer by strengthening the military and enlisting more nation as allies in the war on terror.
"The U.S. is not more secure. Iraq remains unstable," said Kerry adviser Susan Rice, a former U.S. diplomat. "We cannot win the war on terror without partners.''
Former Gen. Wesley Clark, a former rival for the Democratic nomination and one of the retired officers showcased by the campaign, repeated the criticisms of the Bush strategy that he had made throughout his unsuccessful candidacy.
"We are not winning the war on terrorism with the strategies and policies of the Bush administration," he said.
The public is sharply divided on that question. In a poll released by the Annenberg Election Survey, 50 percent of the those interviewed said they approved of the President's handling of the war on terror, and 47 percent said they disapproved. Among the much narrower band of persuadable voters however - those who are either undecided or have a preference but say there is a good chance they could change their minds - Mr. Bush had less support. Fifty-four percent of that group disapproved of the administration's handling of terrorism and 40 percent said they approved.
One area where President Bush did hold an advantage, with the total sample of voters and with persuadable voters, was on which rated higher as a strong leader. Among all voters, Mr. Bush rated higher with 46 percent and Mr. Kerry with 39 percent. Among persuadable voters, the Bush advantage was higher still: Mr. Bush, 42 percent; Mr. Kerry, 28 percent.
Those are the numbers that the convention managers hope to change with the repeated description's of his record in Vietnam and images such as tonight's reunion of Mr. Kerry and his "band of brothers."
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.
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