Calling himself "a foot soldier in the fight for our future," former president Bill Clinton sought to energize his fellow Democrats Monday night behind the presidential candidacy of Sen. John F. Kerry, whom he hailed as a courageous, patriotic and "visionary" leader who would bring wisdom to the White House.

In an address to the Democratic National Convention as the featured speaker of its opening session, Clinton drew rousing ovations as he denounced the policies of the Bush administration, which he said has sought to enrich those who share its views while portraying the Democrats as unacceptable.

"In other words, they need a divided America," Clinton said. "But we don't."

Rebutting what he said were Republican attempts to tar Kerry as vacillating, Clinton said, "Strength and wisdom are not opposing values."

Clinton, who occupied the White House from 1993 to 2001, was introduced by his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who praised Kerry as a leader who knows "you have to lead the world, not alienate it."

The former president's speech came after a sometimes wry address by his former vice president, Al Gore, and a tough Bush-bashing speech by former president Jimmy Carter.

"Tonight I speak as a citizen, eager to join you here in Boston as a foot soldier in the fight for our future, as we nominate a true New England patriot for president," Clinton said. "The state that gave us John Adams and John Kennedy has now given us John Kerry, a good man, a great senator, a visionary leader."

During the Vietnam War, Clinton said, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and he himself could have chosen to fight in that war, but did not. Kerry, on the other said, "said, 'send me,'" Clinton said. Now, he said, Americans should "send John Kerry" to the White House.

While Democrats "want to build an America of shared responsibilities and shared opportunities," Clinton said, "Republicans believe in an America run by the right people, their people."

Earlier, Gore accused the Bush administration of mishandling the war on terrorism and urged Americans to switch to the "strong and wise" leadership of Kerry, 60, a four-term senator from Massachusetts.

Rallying Democrats to avenge his defeat in the 2000 presidential election, Gore spoke with dry wit of his narrow loss to President Bush. Gore won the popular vote but came up short in the Electoral College and in the U.S. Supreme Court, which resolved a dispute over the vote count in Florida in Bush's favor.

"You know the old saying: you win some, you lose some. And then there's that little-known third category," Gore said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "But I didn't come here tonight to talk about the past. After all, I don't want you to think that I lie awake at night counting and recounting sheep."

Gore also echoed the assembly's main theme, saying, "I firmly believe America needs new leadership that will make us stronger at home and respected in the world."

Gore spoke as Democrats prepared to anoint Kerry as their standard-bearer under the tightest security for any political convention in U.S. history.

Appealing to Republicans and independents, as well as Democrats, to vote for Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Gore asked a series of questions.

"Isn't it now abundantly obvious that the way the war [in Iraq] has been managed by the administration has gotten us into very serious trouble?" Gore said. "Wouldn't we be better off with a new president who hasn't burned his bridges to our allies, and who could rebuild respect for America in the world?"

The threat facing the United States from terrorism is deadly, real and imminent, Gore said. "But in order to protect our people, shouldn't we focus on the real source of this threat: the group that attacked us and is trying to attack us again -- al Qaeda, headed by Osama bin Laden? Wouldn't we be safer with a president who didn't insist on confusing al Qaeda with Iraq?"

Stressing that "every vote counts," Gore urged supporters of independent candidate Ralph Nader to reconsider.

"Let's make sure that the Supreme Court does not pick the next president, and that this president is not the one who picks the next Supreme Court," he said in one of several references to his 2000 defeat.

He added later in the speech: "To those of you who felt disappointed or angry with the outcome in 2000, I want you to remember all of those feelings. But then I want you to do with them what I have done: focus them fully and completely on putting John Kerry and John Edwards in the White House in 2004. . . ."

Carter, who spoke after Gore but before the Clintons, said he was confident that Kerry would "restore the judgment and maturity to our government that nowadays is sorely lacking." As a former naval officer, Kerry "showed up when assigned to duty," said Carter, 80, who also served in the U.S. Navy.

Under Bush, "the United States has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends, and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of 'preemptive' war," Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, told the convention. "In the world at large, we cannot lead if our leaders mislead."

Sounding similar themes, Kerry accused President Bush Monday of responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks almost exclusively with military power, to the detriment of America's international standing. In a campaign appearance at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Kerry said the United States should put more emphasis on reaching out to moderate Muslims in an effort to isolate radicals.

"I am not exaggerating when I tell you . . . never in 35 years have I seen the United States as . . . derided and disrespected as we are today," Kerry said as he called on Republicans and independents to rethink their support for Bush, Washington Post staff writer Jim VandeHei reported.

Kerry made the comments as a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that he has lost ground to Bush in recent weeks, with many Americans apparently confused about his plans for handling the economy, Iraq and the war on terrorism.

The poll showed Kerry narrowly trailing Bush among registered voters by 46 percent to 48 percent, distantly followed by Nader at 3 percent. Although the survey represents a virtual tie between Kerry and Bush, it marks a decline in popularity for the four-term senator, who led Bush by four percentage points a little over a month ago.

According to the poll, more than half of voters -- 54 percent -- say they are unfamiliar with Kerry's stands. Among the uncertain are nearly half of Democrats -- 46 percent -- as well as a majority of independents.

With thousands of federal, state and local security agents and police blocking roads and keeping a watchful eye on Boston, nearly 5,000 delegates and alternates and 30,000 other guests, dignitaries and journalists converged for an evening of speeches.

Among those who addressed the convention was Rev. David Alston, a member of Kerry's patrol-boat crew during the Vietnam War.

Alston is one of a number of veterans who are taking on a prominent role at the convention, as Kerry seeks to define himself and highlight his military service in Vietnam, where he won medals for valor and three Purple Hearts while commanding a Navy Swiftboat.

Speaking after a poignant commemoration dedicated the Sept. 11 victims, Alston said Kerry's boat was "a traveling bulls-eye" as it navigated the waters of the Mekong Delta. Yet, Kerry, then a Navy lieutenant, "was known for taking the fight to the enemy," Alston said.

"In the toughest of situations, Lieutenant Kerry showed judgment, loyalty and courage," Alston said. "And he never lost his cool."

In a news conference before the convention was gaveled to order at 4 p.m. EDT, Peggy Wilhide, the convention's communications director, highlighted a party platform that was unanimously adopted by the Democrats' platform committee, with no dissenting minority reports as in previous years.

"This party is united as never before," she said. The platform is to be put to a vote on the convention floor Tuesday evening.

Outlining the national security section of the platform, Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa said a Kerry-Edwards administration would work to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, promote democracy and freedom, strengthen U.S. military forces that have been stretched thin and gain energy independence.

"To achieve victory in the war on terror, we must be strong, we must be innovative, and we must be bold," Vilsack told the convention. "We will confront al Qaeda and its terror affiliates around the globe." But in addition, Vilsack said, "We will do what this administration has failed to do: use diplomacy to create an effective worldwide coalition against terror."

Kerry is scheduled to address the convention as part of its finale on Thursday. Aides said he planned to watch the convention speeches Monday at a hotel in Norfolk, Va., where he is scheduled to campaign Tuesday. He is due to arrive in Boston Wednesday night after a campaign appearance in Philadelphia.

At the convention and beyond, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner said Monday, Kerry can exploit what he called the Bush administration's failure to rein in the federal budget deficit, Washington Post staff writer Michael D. Shear reported.

"The public feels this unease that this president has a plan for dealing with the deficit," Warner told a group of reporters and editors. "His Achilles heel is the deficit."

Warner also said Kerry can capture independent and moderate votes by speaking to people who live in rural areas where local economies are lagging behind the nation's average.

"The current administration has been lacking in sympathy and empathy for those communities," Warner said.

As the delegates gathered, a minor controversy erupted over a testy remark by Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, to a persistent journalist at a Massachusetts Statehouse reception for fellow Pennsylvanians.

Heinz Kerry engaged in the exchange Sunday night with Colin McNickle, the editorial page editor of the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who had questioned her about remarks in which she criticized "the creeping, un-Pennsylvanian and sometimes un-American traits that are coming into some of our politics," news agencies reported. Asked by McNickle what she meant by the term "un-American," Heinz Kerry denied saying that and, after more questioning, told McNickle, "Now shove it."

John Kerry defended his wife's remark, telling reporters Monday, "I think my wife speaks her mind appropriately."

Hillary Rodham Clinton also came to Heinz Kerry's defense in an interview on CNN. "A lot of Americans are going to say, 'Good for you, you go, girl,' and that's certainly how I feel about it," she said.

A spokeswoman for Heinz Kerry later said, "This was sheer frustration aimed at a right-wing rag that has consistently and purposely misrepresented the facts in reporting on Mrs. Kerry and her family," the Associated Press reported.

In providing security for the convention, authorities have deployed thousands of Boston police, elite SWAT teams, Massachusetts state troopers, members of the National Guard and plainclothes federal Secret Service agents. More than 40 miles of highways have been closed, and a major commuter rail station under the FleetCenter has been shut down.

An unusual protest took place Monday afternoon at the Boston harbor by members of the convention's Washington, D.C., delegation, who staged a reenactment of the 1773 Boston Tea Party, an act of resistance by American colonists against British rule.

Carrying signs with slogans such as "No Taxation Without Representation" and "Free D.C.," about 150 protesters demanded statehood for the nation's capital, which has one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives and no representation in the Senate, washingtonpost.com producer Dan Jung reported.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's lone representative in Congress, scooped tea out of a silver urn and flung it into the water. She was joined by other protesters, some of them wearing colonial tricorn hats, who ceremoniously tore open tea bags and sprinkled the contents in the channel.

"As long as we pay our federal income taxes, as long as there are men and women in Iraq, we are going to demand the right to vote in the House and in the Senate," Norton told the crowd. "That's why we are dumping this tea today."

In an interview with washingtonpost.com, Norton said later, "There's only one jurisdiction in the world that can reenact the Boston Tea Party with any authenticity, and that's the District of Columbia. Those folks dumped tea in the harbor in order to send a message to King George about paying taxes without representation ." She said District residents must resort to dramatic gestures "to seize the attention of the country."

As D.C. delegation member George Fenderson put it, "There's disenfranchisement of 600,000 voters. We're the last colony."

Washington Post polling director Richard Morin, assistant polling director Claudia Deane, senior polling analyst Christopher Muste and washingtonpost.com staff writer Mike Snyder contributed to this report.