Unified and hungry for a return to the White House, Democrats opened their 44th national convention on Monday while John Kerry told Republicans and independents to "stop and think" before casting their votes this fall.
"If you're conservative, there's nothing conservative about piling debt on the shoulders of our children and driving the deficits up as far as the eye can see," the Massachusetts senator told a Florida audience in a jab at President Bush.
"Stop and think. Think about what's happening," he added as he campaigned in the state whose bitterly contested recount decided the outcome of the 2000 election.
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and four-term senator, spoke a few hours before Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe brought down the gavel to open the party's nominating convention.
Former President Clinton had the featured prime-time speaking slot — the role of booster in chief for the Democratic presidential candidate.
The roster of speakers for the night also included former President Carter and Al Gore, the party's 2000 presidential nominee. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, already viewed as a potential presidential contender for a future campaign, had the task of introducing her husband.
Clinton twice led his party to victory and is the most recent Democrat to hold the White House. Gore, mindful of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, shoved him to the sidelines during the 2000 campaign — a decision that still sparks debate.
Arkansas delegates gathering for breakfast on the first day of the convention said Clinton could help Kerry win his home state this fall. "Al Gore could have won Arkansas if he had let Clinton campaign there," said Jim McGuire, 72, a retired postal worker.
Under Clinton, Kerry told his Florida audience, "we balanced the budget, we paid down the debt, and we created 23 million new jobs."
He said he has a plan to reduce the deficit in half and "be fiscally responsible."
The delegates gathered amid unprecedented security for the first national political convention since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The subway station that runs near the FleetCenter was barricaded shut, and armed personnel stood guard along a seven-foot-tall metal security fence that ringed the convention complex.
At the behest of the Secret Service, the city revoked a permit for Operation Rescue and several other anti-abortion groups to demonstrate outside Kerry's home during convention week.
The groups sued, to no avail. "I'm not going to second-guess the Secret Service's idea of how they feel they need to protect a presidential candidate," said Judge Nathaniel Gorton in denying the request.
"Security is being used to prevent any type of free speech activity," countered Brandi Swindell, national director of Generation Life, one of the anti-abortion groups.
The convention hall was converted into a gigantic sound stage ready for four days of political pageantry, and the Kerry campaign's core message was impossible to miss. The words "A Stronger America" seemed to float by on video screens, and were visible, as well, on emblems affixed to the front of the two speaker podiums.
The Kerry campaign made clear to convention speakers it wanted to tone down the rhetorical attacks on Bush.
The tone was distinctly negative at a meeting of convention delegates who served in the military, though.
"You don't avoid by every means possible the war of your generation," and then order troops into Iraq as president," said former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee.
"There's a man who'll do anything to avoid a draft," added Democratic strategist James Carville, referring to Bush.
Democrats gathered with the polls showing Kerry in a strong challenging role for the White House. Most surveys make the race a statistical tie or narrow advantage for the Democrat, and a Time Magazine survey released over the weekend found that 53 percent of those surveyed said it was time for a different president.
"This is almost a unique position of strength for a challenger," wrote campaign pollster Mark Mellman in a memo distributed to reporters.
In another memo, Mellman and other pollsters said surveys indicate more voters are planning to watch this convention on television than was the case four years. The Kerry campaign views that as good news, since roughly one-third of all voters say they don't know enough about the Massachusetts senator or his agenda to make an informed decision about his candidacy.
There was no doubt about Kerry's popularity inside the convention hall. So much so that his lock on the proceedings made the role of the 4,354 delegates perfunctory.
Howard Dean, the one-time front-runner in the race for the nomination, met with the delegates he had won. "I have released my delegates. I've asked them all to vote for the Kerry-Edwards ticket," he said.
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