Kerry challenges Bush on Iraq war, economy
By Adam Nagourney
BOSTON -- U.S. Sen. John Kerry accepted the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday night, pledging to "restore trust and credibility to the White House" as he accused President Bush of misleading the nation into war and pursuing policies that he says are a threat to the economy, the Constitution and America's standing in the world.
Kerry, speaking in a convention hall that was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with delegates, promised to take charge of "a nation at war." He invoked his service in Vietnam 35 years ago as he vowed to protect Americans from terrorism in the 21st century.
"I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president," Kerry said. "Let there be no mistake: I will never hesitate to use force when it is required. Any attack will be met with a swift and a certain response."
But more than reinforcing his own credentials as a wartime president, Kerry used this speech to offer a blistering critique of Bush's 40 months in office, going so far as to challenge Bush's honesty in an echo of one of the signature attacks Bush used against Bill Clinton when he ran for president in 2000.
"We have it in our power to change the world, but only if we're true to our ideals -- and that starts by telling the truth to the American people," Kerry said, speaking rapidly over repeated cheers from his audience. "As president, that is my first pledge to you tonight. As president, I will restore trust and credibility to the White House.
"I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war. I will have a vice president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a secretary of defense who will listen to the advice of the military leaders. And I will appoint an attorney general who upholds the Constitution of the United States."
Kerry's speech was, from start to finish, weighted toward foreign affairs and national security, a contrast to Democratic convention speeches over the past 50 years.
For anyone watching the proceedings on this last night of the 44th Democratic convention, there could be little doubt about the urgent and complicated tasks Kerry faced: to convince the nation's voters that he could match Bush's credentials as a wartime president, that he was tough enough to use force when needed and that they should turn out a president in the middle of the war.
And the gauzy introductions leading up to his arrival -- folksy and personal tributes from his two daughters, a Hollywood biographic video, war stories from one of his buddies from Vietnam -- signaled another goal of his convention: to provide a softer view of a politician whose own friends describe as cool and distant.
As Kerry came here to accept his party's nomination, he confronted polls that showed him and Bush locked in a tie, but with signs that Americans, while unhappy with Bush, were not prepared to turn the White House over to a man that Bush has sought to diminish as liberal and unprincipled.
The speech ushered in what will be an extraordinarily busy month of politicking before the Republican National Convention in New York. Kerry heads out of Boston today for a two-week cross-country bus trip with vice presidential running mate John Edwards. Bush, not wasting a moment, is heading out on his own campaign trip to the Midwest today.
Kerry roared into the convention hall just past 10 p.m., to the Bruce Springsteen song "No Surrender," coming not from back stage but across the convention hall itself, slapping hands with delegates before bounding up the stage on steps built overnight.
"I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty!" Kerry said with a crisp salute as he took to the stage as the delegates cheered.
He surrounded himself on stage with symbols of military might and reminders of his own war service. There was grainy videotape showing him, gun in hand, on the fields of Vietnam.
He was introduced by Max Cleland, a former senator from Georgia who lost three limbs as a result of his own service in Vietnam.
The nation met 14 crewmates -- members of his "band of brothers" -- who accompanied him as he commanded Swift Boats down the bullet-ridden Mekong Delta.
"We need a strong military and we need to lead strong alliances," Kerry said, when it came time for him to speak. "And then, with confidence and determination, we will be able to tell the terrorists: You will lose and we will win. The future doesn't belong to fear; it belongs to freedom."
While foreign policy dominated much of Kerry's address, it was far from his only theme of the speech, and reflected the calculation of Kerry's advisers that he needed to at least neutralize the issue of terrorism in order to move the election debate to issues that might play better for Democrats.
Kerry presented himself as a the candidate of "the middle class who deserve a champion, and those struggling to join it."
Even as he took pains to say he had an optimistic view of the future, he spoke of a nation that was suffering because of Bush's policies.
"We are a nation at war -- a global war on terror against an enemy unlike any we have ever known before," he said. "And here at home, wages are falling, health care costs are rising, and our great middle class is shrinking. People are working weekends; they're working two jobs, three jobs, and they're still not getting ahead.
"We can do better and we will."
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