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washingtonpost.com > Politics > Elections > DNC > Terry Neal Reports

Terry Neal's
Democratic National Convention Dispatches

washingtonpost.com political correspondent Terry M. Neal reports from the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

You can e-mail Terry Neal at CommentsForNeal@washingtonpost.com.

Political Players Video Series
 Video: Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) talked with Terry M. Neal about the Iraq war, President Bush and some new street slang.
Obama, Sharpton Steal the Show
Thursday, Jul 29, 2004; 1:28 PM

One of the things that stood out during John Edwards’s speech last night was how anti-climactic it felt. But perhaps people needed a more soothing presence after Al Sharpton’s extended diatribe, in which he threw out his notes and ad-libbed his way through a time-slot busting diatribe against the Bush administration.

Truth be told, Sharpton--like him or loathe him--moved the crowd with his pointed one-liners. And he is, hands down, one of the best speakers the party has. Too bad there isn’t a position on the ballot in November for Orator-in-Chief.

I watched the Edwards speech last night from the CNN skybox overlooking the FleetCenter floor as I prepared for my side gig offering political analysis on NewsNight with Aaron Brown.

Sure, the sea of red Edwards signs was impressive, but the North Carolina senator’s speech was primarily a rehash of the address he’s been giving for the past year, with a few laudatory words about Kerry thrown in and some beefed-up rhetoric about security.

Backstage, I ran into columnist Joe Klein, who is no longer Anonymous, and asked him what he thought. "I never liked the speech in the first place," said Klein, who now writes a column for Time. “There aren’t two Americas! There are a lot of Americas.”

In all fairness, people do tend to respond to Edwards’s charisma, and his speech hit, as it usually does, the right notes. One thing has become apparent in this convention: The party’s legion of consultants and pollsters have told the ticket and the party hierarchy that perhaps it is better not to directly accuse President Bush of misleading the country. Might turn off some swing voters.

The Kerry camp and the DNC have reportedly tried to discourage such direct assertions in the speeches. But they’ve had limited success. In Edwards’s speech last night, he talked about how Bush has mismanaged the war but didn’t raise direct questions about Bush’s honesty. So instead, he just talked about returning “credibility” to the White House.

This is the same sort of game that Bush played in 2000, when he almost never explicitly criticized Bill Clinton by name for his moral lapses. Instead, he built an entire campaign on -- wink, wink -- returning honor and dignity to the White House. I covered the Bush campaign for The Post in 2000, and I distinctly recall Bush trying to make the case, with a straight face, that he wasn’t really criticizing Clinton at all with that “honor and dignity” line.

In any case, the one guy people around here are still buzzing about is U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama from Illinois, whose speech has been the best received by most of the delegates and activists I’ve talked to here.

“Let me tell you, my 85-year-old mother, who lives in Bradenton, Fla., called me up after [Obama’s speech] and said 'this guy is presidential material,'" gushed Elizabeth Spahn, a professor at the New England School of Law.

“Everybody has been gushing about Obama being a truly presidential-quality candidate,” said Singleton McAllister, another lawyer and party activist from the District.

Not that this is a scientific measure of anything, but readers of the Live Online discussions I’ve been doing each night at 10 p.m., flooded me with raves about Obama as he finished speaking Tuesday night. I received only a couple messages about Edwards's speech.

In any case, the main event is tonight. It’s why we’re all here. So join me this evening on my chat so we can talk about Kerry and tonight’s events.

Back in a bit with more.

- By Terry M. Neal

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Confronting the Iraq Issue
Wednesday, Jul 28, 2004; 6:20 PM

Last year, in a speech to the Democratic Leadership Council in New York, former president Bill Clinton excoriated his own party, admonishing it to stand up and fight for its values. He said it was better to "be strong and wrong, than weak and right."

Around the same time, Howard Dean's message that the party had to do a better job of standing up for itself began to catch on. Unfortunately, for Dean, he flamed out in the primaries, but his impact on the party was unmistakable.

Or was it?

One recent poll of delegates here in Boston suggested nine out of 10 oppose the war in Iraq. Criticism of Bush's decision to take the country to war and his handling of the effort to win the peace has been the emotional undercurrent of most of the major speeches here since Monday.

While the platform does criticize Bush for failing to win a broad international coalition in the march to war, the party sidestepped the issue of whether going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do, saying, "people of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war."

I broached the topic with some of Kerry's key advisers -- campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, pollster Mark Mellman and media strategist Tad Devine -- at a Washington Post- sponsored lunch this afternoon.

Earlier in the interview with journalists from the news and editorial staffs of the paper, Cahill had mentioned the economy, job creation, health care and energy dependence as the top issues in the campaign. Devine had to tap her to remind her that "security" was the other big issue.

In my question, I suggested that even though the sentiment in the party is overwhelmingly against Iraq, it didn't seem that the campaign or the party was eager to make Iraq issue number one in the campaign. And did the platform sort of play into the oft-heard criticism of Democrats that they are too weak and often afraid to take bold stands based on their values out of fear of turning off some people?

They all disagreed, saying that Kerry talks about Iraq often on the campaign trail and has been clear in his criticism of the president's handling of the situation -- specifically Bush's failure to build a strong international coalition.

"John Kerry is very mindful of those men and women serving in Iraq," Cahill said. "We want to make sure that their service is honored and that we don't do anything to make them any less safe."

But Republicans say Kerry's position has been anything but clear. The Republican National Committee today released a new 11-minute Internet ad that strings together a series of Kerry quotes to suggest that the candidate has been wishy-washy on the issue. The video is meant to make voters ask, "What does he really stand for?" The video is available here.

The Kerry campaign fired back furiously today that the GOP was twisting Kerry's words and taking them out of context for political expediency and released a memo it says proves it.

"This video is nothing but a stale old attack from the Bush-Cheney campaign, who can't for the life of them find anything positive to say. It comes from the same president that told us Saddam Hussein was tied to al Qaeda, that we'd be welcomed as liberators in Iraq, and that we wouldn't be bearing the costs and casualties alone. Need any more reminders of why this administration's lost its credibility?" said Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton.

There seems to be little doubt that Kerry's position on Iraq has evolved. But people of goodwill -- to steal a phrase from the Democratic Party platform -- can disagree over whether that's a good or a bad thing. America and the world have learned a lot about Iraq and the administration's pre-war assertions in the past year and a half.

Bush continues to argue that going to war was the right thing to do, even as his major rationale for it has been undermined. This the Republicans see as a sign of strength. Kerry's position has evolved. The Republicans portray this as a sign of weakness. How the voters interpret these issues might help decide the election.

Listen to audio excerpts from a Washington Post interview with Kerry advisers Tad Devine, Mary Beth Cahill and Mark Mellman.

- By Terry M. Neal

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Roxbury Ho-Hum on Kerry
Wednesday, Jul 28, 2004; 8:00 AM

washingtonpost.com videographer Anne Rittman and I decided to stretch our legs a bit and get outside the convention perimeter to meet some real people. We chose Roxbury because Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was speaking at a community college there and we were scheduled to interview him for our Yahoo Political Players series. (We'll have that interview for you tomorrow.)

After our chat with Cummings, we headed out into the predominantly African American neighborhood to talk with folks about their impressions of the upcoming presidential election during this big week in Boston.

We chatted with about a dozen people informally and on camera. While that does not make for a scientific study, some of the opinions offered in our interviews were revealing and underscore some of the larger points of this campaign.

A few things grabbed our attention: The extremely high level of interest across the board in this election, unanimity that Iraq was the number one issue, pure, abject anger at President Bush and ambivalence for homeboy John Kerry.

Roxbury has long been the center of black life in Boston, and it's no surprise that all of the people we talked to here today said they planned on voting for Kerry. What was perhaps surprising is that none of them said they had ever seen Kerry campaigning in their neighborhoods or heard of him doing so, and that they had no special affinity for him.

This seemed to reflect the criticism from African American leaders that Kerry has done little to appeal to black, urban voters. The fact that black voters in his own state seem ho-hum about him in any other year might be a cause of alarm. But this is not a normal year, and the issue isn't so much whether blacks will vote for the Democrat, but whether they will come out in significant numbers at all.

"Kerry is the man," barber Louis Richardson, 42, told us, after launching into a long, angry tirade against Bush. Later in the conversation, however, he complained that Kerry's personality was "weak" compared to Bush's, and chided the candidate for never coming to Roxbury.

Check out the video of our visit here.

- By Terry M. Neal

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Define or Be Defined
Tuesday, Jul 27, 2004; 3:46 PM

Although most Americans don't want politicians to get nasty, a large portion of undecided voters (about one-fifth of all likely voters) are dying to know what exactly John F. Kerry plans to do differently than President Bush and be convinced why they should change course at such a crucial time.

Democrats are seeking to balance the need to inform with the need to energize. Last night's events sought to do that, without going overboard on the flame-throwing rhetoric.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that in recent weeks Kerry has lost much of the ground he gained on Bush on virtually every major issue.

When voters are asked which candidate would do a better job handling taxes, the economy, Iraq, terrorism, health care and education, there has been an average 12-point swing in Bush's favor between early July and now. There have also been significant net swings in Bush's favor on various personality traits, including whom the public sees as more honest and trustworthy and which candidate better understands the problems of people like you.

The Republican National Committee gleefully e-mailed the results of the poll to reporters this morning, with a little additional analysis thrown in for good measure.

"Americans believe that President Bush is more honest than Kerry, that he is a stronger leader, is more likely to take a position and stick with it, will make the country safer and more secure, and shares their values," Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd wrote in a memo addressed to "campaign leadership" and distributed to journalists this morning.

Why the slippage? My Washington Post colleagues Richard Morin and Claudia Deane explained in today's paper: "The poll suggests that negative ads by the Bush-Cheney campaign that have been airing since early March, as well as attacks by Republican officials, have been increasingly successful in planting the image of Kerry as an unreliable leader who flip-flops on the issues -- perceptions that Democrats will work hard to reverse at their convention."

And why have the ads been effective? Because a majority of voters still say they really don't know John Kerry.

In other words, team Bush is filling a vacuum of knowledge about Kerry, effectively defining him because no definition existed.

Fortunately for Kerry, the race is still essentially a dead heat, despite the recent slippage on individual issues. But if this sort of erosion on individual issues were to continue, Kerry would have no chance to win in November. People can talk all they want about how there’s no news at these conventions, but, viewed from a macro perspective, this week could make or break Kerry. And in my book, that's news.

- By Terry M. Neal

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Negative or Just Critical?
Tuesday, Jul 27, 2004; 1:39 PM

Were the Democrats overtly negative last night?

That, of course, depends on whom you ask. Perhaps you have some opinions on the matter, which we can chat about during my online discussion from the convention floor at 10 p.m. tonight. Certainly some Republican critics will maintain that is the case and will no doubt use evidence like the " Clinton Assails Bush as Democrats Open Convention" headline on the lead story in the New York Times to bolster their argument.

True enough, Bill Clinton did take it to President Bush last night. And in his speech earlier in the evening, former vice president Al Gore went at least 10 minutes or so before he even mentioned Sen. John F. Kerry by name.

Those who literally interpreted Kerry’s proclamation of a positive convention were probably living in a dream world. Conventions are not about happy talk. Never have been and probably never will be. But journalists sometimes get lazy and use the terms "negative attack" and "criticism" interchangeably.

The Democrats crept to the negative ledge last night, but didn't jump over in terms of their rhetoric. It certainly wasn't all positive, but even the negative stayed in the realm of criticism, rather than blatant political attacks and name-calling.

What's the difference? If, for instance, the Bush campaign says Kerry’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy would wreak havoc on the economic recovery, that's a criticism and perfectly within the bounds of propriety in the political world. If the Bush campaign questions Kerry’s patriotism for voting no on legislation to fund the troops in Iraq, that is attack politics.

So if Bill Clinton accuses President Bush of squandering the nation’s moral authority and post-9/11 international goodwill by attacking Iraq before the weapons inspectors finished their job and by unilaterally withdrawing the United States from various international treaties, is that an attack or a criticism? How about if he accuses the president of running up the national deficit or imperiling the fiscal health of the nation by offering massive tax cuts benefiting mostly the rich at a time when the nation's needs are so great?

All seem within the bounds of legitimate criticism. Monday night’s speakers didn’t go on ad nauseam that Bush was a draft dodger—although that may have been implied in more than one speech—and several speakers did take up the issue at a Veterans for Kerry event in Boston earlier yesterday. That might be correctly considered a negative attack.

Or how about Jimmy Carter’s comments that Bush’s failure to make himself available for military service in Vietnam has contributed to his poor decision-making as a president: “I served under two presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, men who represented different political parties," said Carter, a former Navy submarine officer. "Both of whom had faced their active military responsibilities with honor. They knew the horrors of war, and later, as commanders-in-chief, they exercised restraint and judgment and had a clear sense of mission. We had confidence that our leaders, military and civilian, would not put our soldiers and sailors in harm's way by initiating ‘wars of choice’ unless America's vital interests were endangered."?

People will argue over the merit of Carter's opinion. Certainly there are many people who consider this bunk. I’m expressing no opinion on Carter's opinion. It's certainly his right to express it.

But did Carter go over the line with the next sentence: "We also were sure that these presidents would not mislead us when it came to issues involving our nation's security."?

He seems on shakier ground here, because there is no proof—although there may be plenty of evidence -- that the president intentionally misled the nation about Iraq.

In any case, the bottom line for Democrats this week is that, from a strategic standpoint, they have to do more than talk about how fabulous they think John Kerry is. The base is demanding tough talk about this administration’s stewardship.

- By Terry M. Neal

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