Creating a comfort level

July 25, 2004

DURING THE FALL of 2002, Sen. John Kerry was among the most outspoken critics of President Bush's Iraq policy, before announcing at the last minute that he would join a solid majority of his colleagues in granting the president broad authority for military intervention.

That vote appeared sharply at odds with Mr. Kerry's opposition to the use of force in Iraq a decade earlier. And it is inconsistent with his more recent refusal to support an $87 billion spending measure for the current Iraq operation.

As the Massachusetts Democrat accepts his party's presidential nomination this week, his greatest challenge appears to be making voters comfortable with a highly nuanced approach to issues that could be prized as thoughtful and independent or lampooned as opportunistic and wishy-washy.

The November election may be mostly a referendum on Mr. Bush, but Mr. Kerry can't win by just being the other guy. He has to convince voters in the narrow but crucial wavering middle that he is a man they trust to have in the White House in perilous times.

Despite months of running even or slightly ahead of Mr. Bush in some polls, the Democratic nominee-to-be has not yet made the sale.

His convention opens in Boston tomorrow, though, amid auspicious signs. Democrats are more fired up than they have been in decades, passionately united in their opposition to Mr. Bush and determined to break the Republicans' monopoly on power in Washington.

Voters are troubled by domestic issues as well as the war in Iraq, and tell pollsters they have more confidence in Democrats to handle the economy, health care and education. The Republican-led Congress recessed for the summer Thursday, leaving a legacy of inaction and internal divisions.

Polls also indicate Americans have greater faith in Mr. Bush than in Mr. Kerry to conduct the war on terrorism, and are more inclined to see the president as a strong leader true to his convictions. But 10 percent to 15 percent of swing voters in key states are believed open to persuasion.

Thus, the four-day show in Boston has been choreographed to showcase Mr. Kerry's personal virtues, particularly his strength of character and his plans for a "stronger, more secure America."

He's not likely to get the huge bounce in the polls that Bill Clinton scored after his first convention a dozen years ago. But Senator Kerry may make significant headway if he convinces voters that leadership is rarely about choosing between black and white but rather about navigating safely through a world defined by infinite varieties of gray.

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