Inevitably, with vitriolic Bush critics such as former Vice President Al Gore, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass) receiving speaking slots at the convention, Democrats will spend part of their time making their case against the president. But a wide array of Kerry strategists said the convention would devote less time and energy than might be expected to framing an argument against Bush, especially during in the precious prime-time hours covered by the broadcast networks.
In part, insiders say, that decision reflects a belief that Democratic criticism is less likely to affect public perceptions of Bush than real-world events such as the developments in Iraq or the economy.
A bigger factor may be the confidence in Democratic circles that most Americans are already willing to change direction without a hard sell from Kerry.
Polls consistently show Bush's approval rating hovering at 50% or less, with most voters saying the nation is on the wrong track; in recent surveys both by The Times and Greenberg, a solid majority also said they wanted to move in a different policy direction than the one Bush had set out.
In campaign appearances in recent weeks, Kerry has generally tempered earlier harsh attacks on Bush and frequently sought to project a statesmanlike, less partisan image, especially on national security issues. Advisors are promising the same tone at the convention.
"We don't need to be talking to people in a way that we typically would have under a normal scenario, where we were trailing the incumbent going into the convention," Devine said.
"We are in a place where people have said ... they want the country to go in a different direction and the question is, 'Are they comfortable with Kerry leading them in that direction?' "
To answer that question, Democrats hope this week to increase awareness of Kerry's domestic and foreign agenda -- though less by impressing people on the details of his plan than by convincing them he has a plan. Their principal goal is to flesh out Kerry for the many voters who now hold only vague or negative impressions of him, and to present his agenda as the culmination of a lifetime devoted to the value of public service.
In that way, the strategy is reminiscent of Bill Clinton's effort at the 1992 convention to present himself as both a product and defender of the middle class, presenting an agenda to provide others the same opportunities that allowed him to rise to prominence "from a place called Hope."
Among those enlisted for prominent speaking roles in Kerry's effort will be daughters Alexandra and Vanessa, stepson Chris Heinz and the senator's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Colleagues such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) will also testify to Kerry's work in Congress.
The campaign appears determined to shine the brightest spotlight on the candidate's service as a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam. It has provided speaking slots to crewmates on the Swift boats he commanded in Vietnam, as well as to Jim Rassmann, a Green Beret whose life Kerry saved in combat, and Max Cleland, a disabled Vietnam veteran and former Democratic senator from Georgia.
Some Democratic strategists worry that Kerry must better explain how his Vietnam experience shapes his approach to problems today. But the campaign sees the highlighting of his time under fire as a critical means to advance his national security message, which is at the top of its priority list this week.
Tilting the convention focus more toward Kerry's personal story than Bush's record presents two risks for the Democrats. One is that the party may wish this fall that it had provided voters a stronger argument for change if Bush effectively makes a case for continuity at the Republican National Convention beginning in late August.
The second risk may be unavoidable: the emphasis on humanizing Kerry will force him to excel at a task that has always challenged him: connecting personally with voters. And for all the praise Kerry is certain to receive from others on the podium, that challenge ultimately will fall to him alone in his acceptance speech Thursday.
"The acceptance speech is the ballgame," said Democratic media consultant Mandy Grunwald, who helped plan the 1992 convention for Clinton. "That is the moment voters tune in and make a judgment."