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Senator John F. Kerry waved to a group of photographers at the rim of the Grand Canyon on Aug. 9.
Senator John F. Kerry waved to a group of photographers at the rim of the Grand Canyon on Aug. 9. (Globe Staff Photo / Dina Rudick)

On the trail of Kerry's failed dream

Page 10 of 16 -- The convention hall was festooned with photos of Kerry in combat. His band of brothers stood on stage. Jim Rassmann, then a registered Republican, retold the story of how Kerry had saved his life while under fire in Vietnam.

On Thursday, July 29, the last night of the convention, the man whose fame was launched by denunciations of a war stepped onto the podium and gave a military salute. "I'm John Kerry," the candidate told the cheering delegates, "and I'm reporting for duty."

The line was the brainstorm of former US senator Max Cleland of Georgia. A close friend and Vietnam veteran who had lost both legs and his right arm in combat, Cleland had planned to use a version of the line in introducing Kerry. "John saw that in a draft of my speech, he liked it, and he took it for his own," Cleland recalled.

Kerry had drafted his own speech in longhand on a legal pad with input from advisers. Once finished, he practiced delivering it during sessions inside his Nantucket garage.

The speech was designed to introduce Kerry as a strong commander. Kerry said he would "never hesitate to use force" and "never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security." He spoke of knowing "what kids go through when they are carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place," about how the American flag "flew from the gun turret right behind my head." He promised to wage the war in Iraq "with the lessons I learned in war."

When the night, and the convention, closed, Democrats declared a roaring success. The polls were less enthusiastic.

Historically, presidential candidates emerge from their political conventions with as much as a 10-point bounce in the polls.

While Kerry's standing on national security issues improved after the convention, his big national debut from Boston didn't add more than a point or two to his support.

Some Democrats felt the Kerry team had squandered its best chance to build an aggressive case for why Bush should be removed from office. As for selling Kerry as a viable alternative: Only six lines of his acceptance speech were devoted to his 20 years in the Senate, a fact that his GOP foes loudly broadcast. The omission was, said one senior adviser, "a fair criticism."

Later, others worried that the focus on Vietnam left an opening for Kerry's swift boat foes to attack. "Was there too much Vietnam?" one top strategist pondered after the election. "Probably, in hindsight. But the swift boat group would have attacked regardless."

Vietnam as the centerpiece
John Kerry is not a man who indulges in emotional highs and lows. When he is angry, he is a master of the cold eyes, the stony mien, the slow burn, which are often delivered as he places his hands on your shoulder or moves his face up close to yours and expresses some measure of disapproval. Aides went to great lengths to avoid those moments.   Continued...

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