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Strong Words by Democrats

At the first convention after 9/11, the platform and tone stress security and military issues.

July 24, 2004|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As Democrats gather next week for the country's first presidential nominating convention since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the proceedings will bear the unmistakable imprint of the calamity that killed thousands of Americans -- and reshaped the political landscape.

With the nation still on edge about terrorism, Democrats in Boston will adopt a platform that places more emphasis on military and security issues than at any time since the height of the Cold War.

The convention's program will turn klieg lights on the military credentials of Sen. John F. Kerry, the party's presumed presidential nominee, who will be introduced by a fellow Vietnam War hero.

An obscure congressional candidate fresh from a military career will get a prime speaking slot. And the official theme of the convention is an obvious bow to post-9/11 anxieties: "Stronger at Home, Respected in the World."

On a more basic level, conventioneers will be repeatedly reminded that they are meeting in a world transformed since the party met in Los Angeles four years ago. Boston will be taut with security precautions unmatched in the annals of U.S. political conventions.

Republicans also will meet in the shadow of Sept. 11 when they begin their convention next month in New York -- a Democratic-dominated city apparently chosen for being the site of the World Trade Center buildings that collapsed into smoking rubble almost three years ago.

Bush's entire presidency was redefined by that attack on New York and the Pentagon, giving him a huge boost in public esteem in the immediate aftermath. But now that the conflict in Iraq has eroded Bush's standing in the polls, the GOP convention also is expected to put unusually heavy emphasis on defense and foreign policy to remind voters of the more popular parts of his anti-terrorism record.

Still, the political imperative to address voters' national security concerns is particularly challenging for Democrats because traditionally they have been viewed as stronger on domestic policy leadership than on defense and foreign policy.

Republicans dismiss Democrats' expected muscle-flexing on national security at the Boston convention as a transparent effort to obscure what they call Kerry's anti-military record, including his vote against the $87 billion Congress provided in 2003 for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It's part of the extreme makeover they are doing on Kerry's record," said Kristine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

Conventions have evolved into venues for sending a message about a political party and its national candidates, rather than gatherings where factions slug it out before settling on a ticket. The 2000 convention that nominated Bush was carefully crafted to present a view of the GOP that fit the effort to portray him as a "different kind of Republican" and his party as more diverse and less partisan than the hard-edged image presented by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

If that convention was aimed at making the GOP seem nicer, this year's Democratic conclave has been crafted to make the party look tougher.

The convention will include plenty of standard Democratic fare, including a speakers list designed to underscore the party's racial and gender diversity; a focus on plans for expanding healthcare and rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the affluent; spotlighted speeches by a Kennedy, two Clintons and Al Gore, and a heavy dose of Bush-bashing.

But threaded through the partisan rabble-rousing will be an effort to reassure swing voters that Kerry has the credentials to be commander in chief in a dangerous world.

"The tone of the convention is important so it is not just a partisan, red-meat event," said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. "This convention has to lay out how Kerry and his party would advocate the nation's security interests: tougher, a lot smarter, bringing international opinion along."

That effort begins in earnest on Tuesday, when the convention is scheduled to adopt a platform that marks a significant shift in emphasis from past blueprints. Nearly half the document deals with matters related to foreign policy, while such issues usually have taken up no more than 20% of the platform, according to Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

It includes a pointed description of the threats now facing the U.S. before detailing what Kerry would do to counter them.

The convention program is studded with veterans, an effort designed not just to burnish the party's military credentials but to court a constituency that Kerry has tried throughout his campaign to woo.

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