BOSTON - Under strict orders from John Kerry to accentuate the positive, Democrats convene here today with a singular aim: introducing their nominee to the country's undecided voters.
Polls show Kerry and President Bush in a virtual dead heat, as they have been for months. They also reveal a sharply polarized electorate, with fewer than one in 10 potential voters still up for grabs.
The first national political convention of the post-Sept. 11 era is opening with a shield of unprecedented security, an almost total absence of suspense - and as little Bush-baiting as possible.
"This is going to be a positive convention," said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the convention chairman. "This is not a bash-Bush convention. What you are going to see is a very positive introduction of Senator Kerry and Senator [John] Edwards to the country."
Four nights of prime-time speechmaking are to begin with remarks this evening by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and former Vice President Al Gore, the party's 2000 nominee. Tomorrow night will feature the candidate's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, plus Ron Reagan, son of the late Republican president, speaking about embryonic stem-cell research.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley will talk about homeland security Wednesday, the same night that Edwards, the vice-presidential candidate, is to speak. Kerry will close the convention Thursday night with his acceptance address, the most important moment yet of the 61-year-old candidate's long White House run.
`Very personal speech'
It will be "a very personal speech," said Kerry's spokesman David Wade. And as Kerry has said in a series of recent news interviews, it is an opportunity for him to convince voters that he can keep the country safe at a time when combating terrorism is a top voter concern.
Kerry's military service in Vietnam, a key credential in the debate over who can best protect America, will be repeatedly played up this week. Among the likely emotional high points: a closing-night speech introducing Kerry by former Sen. Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam.
As part of the effort to define Kerry in the most flattering terms, speakers will praise centrist elements of the Massachusetts senator's voting record. His support for Clinton's 1996 welfare reform plan, opposed by many liberals, is expected to be highlighted by the former president tonight.
Defeated Kerry rivals are among the speakers, including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and the Rev. Al Sharpton. But former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee, was left off the program. Kerry served as lieutenant governor under Dukakis in the early 1980s, and Republicans have sought to link them as evidence of Kerry's liberalism.
The senator and his strategists, determined to avoid any missteps that might turn off undecided voters, instructed officials to strip the convention script of any harsh or divisive rhetoric. The more than 200 convention speakers have had to submit their speech drafts well in advance for vetting by a speechwriting team that began work in a downtown Boston office building this month.
The team of writers, most with White House speechwriting experience, have been removing or toning down anti-Bush lines before clearing the words for delivery from the Fleet Center, the convention hall that also serves as the home of Boston's basketball Celtics and hockey Bruins.
As 6,000 delegates and alternates joined an army of nearly 30,000 news media representatives, elected officials, financial contributors, lobbyists and other guests in Kerry's hometown, officials boasted about the unusually harmonious atmosphere at the 2004 convention.
"Traditionally, we need our convention to bring our party together," said Terry McAuliffe, the national Democratic chairman. But this time, the typically disputatious Democrats are united - and energized - over unseating Bush, and there won't be fights over party rules, platform planks or delegate credentials.
The convention's unusually early starting date, a McAuliffe initiative, had been criticized by some and had led Kerry to consider postponing his acceptance of the nomination, because it will put him at a financial disadvantage. Once he becomes the nominee, he can spend only the $75 million in public money he's accepting for the rest of the campaign; Bush won't be subject to that restriction until early September, when he is nominated.
But McAuliffe said the Democratic Party is in the best financial condition in its history and is pledging to raise $100 million, on top of $60 million already collected by the party, to assist Kerry over the next three months.
Extraordinary security surrounds both the Boston convention and next month's Republican gathering in New York, which have been designated national special security events and been placed under the aegis of the Homeland Security Department and the Secret Service.