The Essential Convention is a daily digest of The Washington Post's coverage from Boston and will be published each morning of the Democratic National Convention.

The plan was to focus on the positive, but Democrats kicked off their national convention to nominate John F. Kerry for president Monday night with a series of harsh critiques of President Bush by some of the party's most prominent leaders.

The night's star speaker at the FleetCenter was former president Bill Clinton, whom Washington Post television critic Tom Shales | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A17005-2004Jul27.html said was greeted by the party faithful here like "a veritable combination of Elvis, the Beatles, James Brown and Bruce Springsteen put together."

Political correspondent Dan Balz | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A15605-2004Jul26.html said Clinton and the other Democratic luminaries who spoke -- including former president Jimmy Carter, former vice president Al Gore and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) -- "sent a jolt of energy through Boston's FleetCenter that got the convention off on the high note that organizers had hoped for."

"Clinton staunchly defended the Massachusetts senator, saying that when young men such as himself, Bush and Vice President Cheney found ways to avoid going to Vietnam, Kerry volunteered for service there," Balz reported. "And he mocked Bush and the GOP for suggesting that Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), would be soft on terrorism. 'Strength and wisdom are not conflicting values,' he said. 'They go hand in hand.' "

According to an analysis by staff writer -- and Clinton biographer -- John F. Harris | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16984-2004Jul27.html, the speeches by the Clintons and Gore "presented cause for anxiety among Kerry operatives. Kerry did not want his convention to be overshadowed by sour grapes from Gore, by Bill Clinton's more flamboyant personality, or by speculation about Hillary Clinton's possible future as a presidential candidate. These were the reasons they spoke on Monday, three days before Kerry's acceptance speech.

"When the night was over," Harris wrote, "it seemed that Kerry's team had little reason for concern. All three mixed the case for their own records with vigorous endorsements of the nominee's record and values."

Post Poll

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, released shortly before Monday night's speeches, suggests Kerry could use a few vigorous endorsements.

"In barely a month, Kerry has lost ground to President Bush on every top voting issue in this year's election," according to a summary of the survey's findings by Post polling director Richard Morin and assistant polling director Claudia Deane | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16026-2004Jul26.html. The data suggest "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. . . . "

Among Morin and Deane's key findings:

* "Kerry and Bush remain virtually deadlocked, with 48 percent of registered voters supporting Bush and 46 percent Kerry. Independent candidate Ralph Nader claims 3 percent of the hypothetical vote."

* "Four in 10 believe Kerry is 'too liberal.' "

* "Currently half of Americans approve of the job [Bush] is doing as president and 47 percent disapprove. Fewer than half endorse the way he is managing the economy, the situation in Iraq and health care."

* "More broadly, a majority of Americans -- 53 percent -- say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country, a 21-point increase since Saddam Hussein's government fell to U.S. forces 15 months ago."

The most significant finding, in terms of Kerry's acceptance speech Thursday night: The poll "suggests that voters are impatient to hear from Kerry on key issues in this campaign, presenting Democrats with an opportunity to show their nominee in a favorable light. More than half -- 54 percent -- say they are unfamiliar with Kerry's positions; only one in four is similarly uncertain where Bush stands. Nearly half of all Democrats -- 46 percent -- and a majority of political independents say they are not sure what Kerry stands for."

'The Teresa Heinz Kerry Fan Club'

Before Monday night's speeches, the big story in Boston, such as it was, was Teresa Heinz Kerry telling a conservative Pittsburgh newspaper editorial writer to "shove it." For women attending a convention caucus luncheon Monday, Sunday's remark by Kerry's wife "was just the sort of thing most politicians wish they could say to pesky reporters, and just the reason that Heinz Kerry is such a fresh breath of air amid the stale on-message speechifying by most politicians," staff writer Evelyn Nieves | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16701-2004Jul26.html reported. "They were also annoyed at the media for harping on the exchange. . . .

"But somewhere, Democratic Party strategists were biting their fingernails, wondering not for the first time whether Heinz Kerry's popular candor can sometimes prove as much of a distraction to the ticket as an attraction," Nieves wrote. "Heinz Kerry's remarks looped all day on the cable news channels, and were Topic A of every pre-scheduled interview she gave to the major networks, which will air Tuesday on the morning shows."

The Candidates

Kerry's running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, is scheduled to arrive here Tuesday. Edwards campaigned briefly in his home state Monday and "planned to spend the rest of the day working on his speech," according to staff writers Jim VandeHei and Lois Romano | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A15934-2004Jul26.html. "Aides said he will do no further public events until he addresses the convention Wednesday night."

On the campaign trail Tuesday with Sen. Bob Graham in Florida, Kerry deviated from "his plan to speak optimistically during convention week," encouraging "Republicans and independents should rethink their support for President Bush or suffer the consequences of more expensive prescription drugs, inferior health care coverage and gravely damaged relations with U.S. allies," VandeHei and Romano reported. "The comments from Kerry and Graham offered a stark contrast to the upbeat message the Democratic ticket is demanding for the convention and planning for his acceptance speech Thursday."

The Keynote

Tuesday night's speeches include the convention's keynote address by Barack Obama, a dynamic but little-known liberal state senator and U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois. If elected in November, he would be the only African American in the Senate -- and just the third since Reconstruction.

Style staff writer Mark Leibovich | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16606-2004Jul26.html profiled Obama, recalling that "the demise of his GOP opponent's campaign" has added to Obama's sudden prominence. "Former Goldman Sachs partner Jack Ryan quit the race last month after newly unsealed divorce records revealed charges by his ex-wife that Ryan tried to persuade her to have public sex in adult clubs. The implosion of Ryan, who denied the charges, brought even more attention to his already celebrated opponent. So did former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka's brief flirtation with running against Obama."

The Kennedy Legacy

Also on Tuesday's agenda is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose family's political legacy poses a challenge to the junior senator from Massachusetts, Kerry -- especially when it comes time for his acceptance speech. Staff writer John F. Harris | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16547-2004Jul26.html wrote that Kerry's speech "will be the high point so far in a political life powerfully influenced by the [John F.] Kennedy example. As a young man, Kerry even faced criticism that he was laying on his emulation -- the accent, the hair, the initials, the attempt to infuse politics with an aura of dashing glamour and celebrity -- a bit too thick."

Labor

Big labor is pouring money into electing Kerry in November, but the president of the largest AFL-CIO union said Monday that the Democratic Party and its labor supporters are "in deep crisis" and Kerry's election might stifle discussion about needed reforms in both movements.

Andrew L. Stern, the head of the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said in an interview with The Washington Post that he still believes that Kerry overall would make a better president than Bush, "but he contends that Kerry's election would have the effect of slowing the 'evolution' of the dialogue within the party," wrote political correspondent David S. Broder | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16387-2004Jul26.html.

Audio excerpts from the interview -- including Stern's remarks about the possible impact of a Kerry victory | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/mmedia/politics/072604-13s.htm and why he thinks the Democratic Party is a "failed party of ideas" | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/mmedia/politics/072604-12s.htm -- can be heard on washingtonpost.com.

The Media

As Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/opinion/tolestom/?name=Toles&date=20040727 observed, the press is as much the story here as the partisans, which has kept media reporter Howard Kurtz very busy.

Tuesday's Post includes articles by Kurtz on the GOP's 30-person media spin team | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16218-2004Jul26.html in Boston and on untraditional media outlets | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16609-2004Jul26.html -- such as Comedy Central, MTV, ESPN, BET and even World Wrestling Entertainment, who "have rushed to fill the vacuum" left by the lack of TV coverage by Big Three networks.

Kurtz also reported on an embarrassing gaffe by his own employer, The Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16827-2004Jul26.html: "The newspaper is printing 10,000 copies a day of a special convention issue that is being distributed free among journalists and delegates attending the Democratic National Convention gathering here. And in large type at the top of Monday's second section, above a picture of John Kerry and John Edwards, is a banner headline: 'ELECTION 2000.' "

In a separate media roundup | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16534-2004Jul26.html, Kurtz reported about a small scandal involving remarks by Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack -- a prominent Kerry backer whose husband, Gov. Tom Vilsack, was considered a possible candidate for vice president. The scandal concerned remarks she made in columns written for a local newspaper in 1994 that were "unearthed by the frequently anti-Kerry Boston Herald and then distributed by the Republican National Committee." Christie Vilsack is slated to address the convention on Tuesday.

In his roundup, Kurtz also reported that USA Today scrapped plans for conservative commentator Ann Coulter to write a daily column from Boston. Coulter posted a sample on her Web site. "My pretty-girl allies stick out like a sore thumb amongst the corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie chick pie wagons they call 'women' at the Democratic National Convention," she wrote in the spiked column.

National Review's Jonah Goldberg is taking Coulter's place, Kurtz reported.

In his free time, Kurtz also is updating his online column | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/nation/columns/kurtzhoward/ about the media.

The Local Delegation

Metro staff writer Tim Craig | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16297-2004Jul26.html reported that former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend "and her erstwhile political partner, former governor Parris N. Glendening, chose the convention to reemerge from political obscurity and reunite with party leaders, many of whom blamed the pair for the disastrous 2002 election results." Craig and fellow staff writer Michael D. Shear | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16298-2004Jul26.html also reported on doings among the Virginia and District delegations.

Security

According to Boston-based correspondent Jonathan Finer | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16599-2004Jul26.html, city residents "experienced a Monday remarkable for its normalcy. Commuters found morning traffic flowing freely from all directions and trains neither crowded nor drastically delayed. Downtown streets only intermittently resounded with protests bellowed from bullhorns by small pockets of demonstrators."

The Post also picked up an Associated Press | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16878-2004Jul26.html report about security at the republican National Convention in New York: " As a security precaution, nearly all Amtrak passengers who want to ride the rails between Washington and Boston during the Republican National Convention -- Aug. 28 through Sept. 2 -- will have to make reservations in advance, the railroad announced yesterday." AP reported that Amtrak "also warned of delays during the convention because of tighter security on all trains to and from New York's Pennsylvania Station, which is partly under the convention site, Madison Square Garden."

Opinion

A Post editorial | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16811-2004Jul26.html examined how the Democratic Party platform addressed the trade issue. And, yes, that is indeed Howell Raines | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16765-2004Jul26.html), former executive editor of the New York Times, who wrote an op-ed in Tuesday's Post about populism. Broder | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16761-2004Jul26.html, writing in his syndicated column, focused on bipartisanship, while columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16763-2004Jul26.html, also writing from Boston, asked, "[W]hat, exactly, will it mean to be a Kerry Democrat? "

Also Noted:

"Reliable Source" columnist Richard Leiby | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16800-2004Jul26.html had updates Tuesday on two of Kerry's Democratic primary challengers, Dennis J. Kucinich and Al Sharpton, as well as this celebrity tidbit about Kerry's daughters:

"Ben Affleck swoons over the Kerry daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa, as he interviews them for the September Harper's Bazaar. The Bostonian movie star jokes with Alex: 'Which one of you did I have an affair with?' She replies (in jest, of course): 'I think it was Vanessa. Yes, it was. You and Vanessa had a long and passionate affair.' Stumped, Affleck writes: 'This still doesn't ring a bell, so I ask for details: "Was I a good boyfriend?" I can hear Alex smile over the phone. She dodges: 'I don't know -- you'll have to ask Vanessa.' (He adds that he found the tabloid rumor to be 'libelous -- to her.') And Alex Kerry's infamous voyage down the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival in May came up. 'Yeah, the dress was completely see-through. Not intentionally, mind you. I wore a very conservative dress that did not withstand the impact of 3,500 flashbulbs. . . . Because of the dark world of the Internet, I'm told there are now entire Web pages dedicated to my breasts. So that was cool,' she quipped. 'You gotta love the Internet.' "