A rousing start

July 30, 2004

IT MAY BE WEEKS or even months before Americans signal whether John Kerry made the most of the opportunity he had last night to present himself as an acceptable alternative to President Bush.

In accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Kerry appealed directly to voters disturbed by the president's conduct of the war in Iraq and those disenchanted with economic policies that failed to forestall a decline in their standard of living.

But his drive to inspire trust that his wisdom, resolve and toughness are a match for the terrors of the post-9/11 world was a far more delicate matter.

The look in his eyes, the timbre of his voice, the self-assurance in his posture during an unusually energetic and occasionally stylish performance all fed into an intangible measure of character that in this television age plays an increasingly important role in the way Americans choose their leaders.

To help make his case, Mr. Kerry relied heavily on the 35-year-old record of his Naval service in Vietnam, and the testimonials of the men he led and sometimes heroically kept from harm.

His war record is certainly superior to that of Mr. Bush, who escaped active duty overseas by serving an abbreviated stint in the Texas Air National Guard. Mr. Kerry is dogged, however, by a more recent record of conflicting votes in the Senate on national security issues, an easy target for critics.

In what seemed a missed opportunity, he didn't deal with those conflicts except to defend his tendency to see "complexities," saying, "Some issues just aren't all that simple."

Mr. Kerry sounded many of the right notes, though, on national security policy. He promised to immediately reform the intelligence system "so that facts are never distorted by politics," as many believe they were on Iraq. He promised servicemen and women they would never be asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace, also a shortcoming in Iraq. And he promised to fight a smarter, more effective war on terror - partly by working to restore the U.S. role as a beacon in the world.

On economic issues, Mr. Kerry was playing to a Democratic strength, outlining job-creating incentives, middle-class tax cuts, and health insurance programs he would pay for by reversing Mr. Bush's tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 a year. He also promised to reduce the deficit by half and resist pressure to cut Social Security benefits - a tall order simply in making the numbers work.

He made a riskier but potentially critical bid to take the high ground from Mr. Bush on values such as "faith and family," as well as optimism and can-do spirit. On this point, the nominee benefited from a charming assist by his daughter, Alexandra, who poignantly described his efforts to apply CPR to a half-drowned hamster that was her childhood pet.

Whether all this adds up to a new commander in chief depends in large measure on a tiny margin of swing voters who may not decide until the last minute. But the newly minted nominee is off to rousing start.

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