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Rushed speech, lost opportunity

FOR REASONS he might like to explain, John Kerry last night raced through an acceptance speech that was way too long for a time slot he knew about for weeks.

Desperate to stay within the broadcast networks' paltry 60 minutes, Kerry stepped on his best thoughts and lines and blurred important proposals and distinctions, committing the sin of interfering with his own ability to communicate with an electorate eager to learn much more about President Bush's opponent.

At a Democratic convention planned to showcase a candidate and his basic approach to two huge situations -- a bogged-down military adventure in Iraq and a fragile economy -- Kerry obscured his presentation in a blizzard of hard-to-follow verbiage dictated by the clock.

Perhaps the public will let him off the hook, but the fact remains that Kerry essentially blew an opportunity he may not get again until the debates with Bush this fall. He and his advisers can and will argue that the cold facts of economic and foreign policy life will dominate political opinion in the weeks ahead; nevertheless, a golden opportunity slipped away.

It almost never happens, but Kerry appears to rank at the bottom of a short list of the most significant Democratic orators that was headed by (take your pick) running mate John Edwards and Illinois Senate candidate (and keynoter) Barack Obama and included the Rev. Al Sharpton and Senator Edward Kennedy.

Yesterday morning there were reports from Democratic and Kerry campaign officials that the speech remained roughly 20 minutes too long despite a process of thinking, writing, and editing that had been going on in earnest at least since his selection of Edwards on July 6.

At first it appeared that the process was achingly slow and dominated by a candidate determined to sketch out the basic outline and content of his speech alone with a yellow pad. With assistance, a body of text approaching 10,000 words was collected and then expanded upon by a campaign determined to add more material to show how "tough" Kerry intends to be in fighting terrorism.

Kerry was not delivering a practice State of the Union Message last night. He was giving a thematic overview. The purpose was not to make new proposals but to present himself as a public servant, an advocate of effective and honest conduct of a new kind of war, and a proponent of a more robust economy that will raise ordinary Americans' living standards.

In parts it was beautifully written (trees as "the cathedrals of nature"). In parts it was horrid -- the snappy salute at the outset and the distinctly nonpresidential announcement that "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty."

Because Kerry was racing, the audience in the convention hall responded with its loudest noise to points about civil right and civil liberties dear to liberals' hearts but not central to Kerry's election strategy -- there will be a new attorney general, no assaults on the Constitution, and no partisan use of the American flag.

That's reassuring, but Kerry muffed an opportunity to hone great material into a powerful address. He and his campaign can do better than this, and his supporters have a right to demand that they do.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is 

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