WASHINGTON — John F. Kerry's strategy for the Democratic National Convention rests on a bet that voters are ready to change direction and need more to be reassured about his virtues than persuaded that President Bush has failed, sources familiar with campaign strategy say.
With that in mind, Democrats plan to focus more on boosting Kerry than bashing Bush at the convention that convenes Monday in Boston. And they are framing a message that, while also trying to spotlight Kerry's policy agenda, places the greatest emphasis on telling his personal story.
"Who he is, where he comes from and what he believes: That is the most important thing to convey," said Tad Devine, a senior Kerry advisor.
Senior Kerry aides said the Democrats would try above all to persuade voters that the Massachusetts senator could defend the country as commander in chief and held strong beliefs that had guided his decisions.
"Seventy-five percent of this week is that he will keep you safe, and 25% is that he is a man of conviction," one senior Kerry aide said.
This strategy may reflect equal measures of confidence and concern. On one hand, it embodies the widespread belief in Democratic circles that at least a narrow majority of Americans are disillusioned with Bush's performance and ready to replace him -- if Kerry can convince them he's a good alternative.
"The country does not need to be won over to the fact that it wants change," said veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. "It needs to be won over to the fact that Kerry is the person who can lead that change."
On the other hand, the decision to illuminate Kerry's life story implicitly acknowledges that he still faces questions and doubts from many voters.
One senior GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking viewed the apparent decision to play down Bush and emphasize Kerry more as a sign of weakness than strength.
"Kerry is weak and they have to deal with that weakness," said the strategist. "Part of that is the Bush campaign ads [attacking Kerry], but that ain't most of it. It is that people are looking at him and saying, 'Massachusetts liberal, flip-flopper.' So I think they are sitting there saying 'We have a real problem and we have to deal with it.' "
Kerry aides dispute that characterization, but it's probably no coincidence that the commander-in-chief-and-conviction message rebuts two central lines of criticism from Bush's campaign, which has poured tens of millions of dollars into ads portraying Kerry as soft on defense and irresolute.
The quadrennial political conventions long ago lost their historic function of actually selecting the parties' presidential nominees, ceding that role to voters in primaries and caucuses. And the share of Americans who watch the proceedings on television has shrunk roughly in half over the last quarter-century as the broadcast networks have reduced air time.
Although the cable networks promise gavel-to-gavel coverage in Boston and New York, where the GOP will convene, the broadcast networks will air three hours from each convention -- the least ever.
Yet almost all analysts agree that the conventions remain one of the critical events in the presidential campaign, especially for candidates like Kerry seeking to unseat an incumbent.
The convention's effect is magnified beyond its immediate television audience because it dominates news coverage, in print and on television, for nearly a week. As a result, experts agree, the convention traditionally has represented the best opportunity for a challenger to fill in his image for voters who have developed only fleeting impressions of him from snippets of news or television ads.
With events in Iraq overshadowing the campaign for much of this year, surveys and focus groups consistently show that many Americans still don't know much about Kerry. A Times Poll last week found that one-third of registered voters said they didn't know Kerry well enough to decide whether he would be a better president than Bush.
And some Democrats worry that many voters have received much of their limited information on Kerry from Bush TV commercials portraying him as a flip-flopper who shifts his position for political advantage.
"Voters feel comfortable that Kerry is smart and experienced, but when you start going beyond that, the only thing that emerges is that he has a personality that seems distant, and some sense he straddles on issues," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "Many of the positive elements of his story are just not known."
Most experts agree with Kenneth Goldstein, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, that the Democratic convention represents "Kerry's last best chance" to tell that story on his own terms.
"If Kerry does not convey a story with swing voters that ... provides a partial shield for what is going to be an onslaught by Bush ... it gives Bush an opportunity to complete the job of defining Kerry and chipping away at his support," said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio.