Democrats' Confidence Precedes Convention
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page A01
BOSTON, July 24 -- United Democrats began assembling here Saturday for a national convention designed to introduce Sen. John F. Kerry to the country, convince voters that he can lead a war against terrorism and show that he offers an appealing alternative to President Bush and the Republicans.
With an eye on undecided and swing voters, Kerry and the Democrats begin their convention week exuding confidence, buoyed by surveys showing that the public has more faith on many issues in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party and that voters remain critical of Bush's handling of the two dominant issues in the campaign, Iraq and the economy.
But the Democrats' self-assurance exists despite the reality that Kerry has struggled to turn broad dissatisfaction with Bush's presidency into stronger support for his own candidacy. Most pre-convention polls continued to show the presidential race still within the margin of error, and Democrats see the convention as a critical opportunity for Kerry to change the shape of the contest.
"He's not closed the sale," independent pollster Tim Hibbits said of Kerry in an interview. "Basically his strongest strength is he's not George Bush."
Officials here were rushing to complete preparations for what may be the most unified Democratic convention in recent memory, as thousands of delegates, activists and journalists began arriving to find a city heavily secured against threats of terrorism. Meanwhile, labor negotiations continued between the city and the firefighters union in a final attempt to head off potentially disruptive picketing at some convention-related events.
After 18 months in which Democratic candidates and party leaders have pounded the president, Democratic officials promised to put on a positive show this week, at least from the podium inside Boston's FleetCenter. "This is going to be a positive convention," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the convention chairman, told reporters Saturday at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "This is not going to be a bash-Bush convention."
Over four nights beginning on Monday, Democrats from former president Bill Clinton to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to Kerry's running mate Sen. John Edwards will highlight Kerry's biography as a combat veteran with two decades of Senate experience, while rebutting Republican criticisms that he is too liberal and lacks convictions on critical issues.
"We've got to make the affirmative case, not the negative case," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who is on the convention program. "There is no doubt that the Democratic base is motivated."
Republicans will be here in force all week to challenge what they dub the "extreme makeover" of Kerry at the convention from a politician with one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate to one who presents himself as being far closer to the center of the political spectrum. "This is someone who has a 19-year record on key issues of taking positions way out of the mainstream," said Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman.
The Democrats' determination to project a positive tone at the convention reflects their view of how the race may be won in November. With rank-and-file Democrats thoroughly energized around the goal of denying Bush and Vice President Cheney another term in office, Kerry campaign and party officials hope to use their convention to broaden the candidate's appeal to undecided and swing voters who may hold the key to victory if the race stays as close as it has been.
"People are living the critique of the Bush administration," said Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill. "I think that now it's about the future and it's about where will John Kerry lead the country. I think people will certainly talk about Bush, but this is more about Kerry and Edwards."
Kerry alluded to those voters in an interview with ABC's Peter Jennings last week when he said he would be thinking as much about his television audience as the delegates inside the hall in Boston when he delivers his acceptance speech on Thursday night. Asked whether he would turn up the volume from his normal stump speech style, he said, "I think you have to remember that you're talking to a television set as much as you're talking to hall."
The Democratic gathering here brings to an end an intensive pre-convention campaign period that has seen both sides raise and spend record amounts of money, much of it spent on television advertising in about a dozen-and-a-half battleground states. But for all the activity, the margin between Kerry and Bush has moved little.
Nor did Kerry's selection of Edwards as his vice presidential running mate significantly shift the race in the Democrats' direction. The two sides are now engaged in a game of expectations over how much of a post-convention bounce in the polls Kerry should expect. Bush-Cheney chief strategist Matthew Dowd argues that, based on history, Kerry should see a 15-point swing, while Kerry officials say that with so few genuinely undecided voters, the bounce will be far more modest.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company