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Convention city springs to life

The Democratic Party yesterday prepared to begin its convention under an unusually broad, shining umbrella of unity, but with some strains and cracks showing over the most volatile issue of the election year, the war in Iraq.

Unlike at past Democratic gatherings, even the most vociferous factions arriving in Boston seemed determined to concentrate their energies on defeating President Bush, whose policies have deeply alienated most party loyalists, from moderate "New Democrats" to the leftist fringe.

But the issue responsible for much of Bush's vulnerability, the Iraq War, also pushes some Democrats in conflicting directions.

A Globe poll of delegates -- mostly party activists who tend to be more liberal than mainstream Democrats -- indicated that 95 percent now believe the United States should never have gone to war in Iraq, a position somewhat at odds with the man preparing to claim the presidential nomination, John F. Kerry, who has said only that he would not have gone to war "the way Bush did."

Most party leaders hope Kerry's convention speech can satisfy those who opposed the war from the start and avoid reopening divisions from the primaries, when former Vermont governor Howard Dean decried many of his rivals as "Bush lite."

But they do not want Kerry to go as far as Dean in denouncing Bush's decision to go to war, but rather concentrate on issues like casualties and the cost of rebuilding Iraq without international support.

Their feelings are predicated on a fear, reflected in polls, that culturally conservative "Reagan Democrats," who are a vital constituency for Kerry in the swing states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan, would be alienated by the kind of antiwar rhetoric offered in the past by Dean, former vice president Al Gore, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Democratic leaders in swing states worry that even if Kerry sticks to his moderate path on the war, fiery convention speeches by others in the party could exact a cost in November.

"If we see an Al Gore shouting like at that recent performance, repeating that mantra of 'So-and-so must resign, and so-and-so must resign,' that's not a temperature that appeals to undecided voters," said former congressman Dennis Eckart of Ohio, who contends that white working-class voters in Cleveland hold the key to Kerry's ability to win the state.

"We must have a rational discourse with voters up in Boston, and I think tone and tenor are vitally important," Eckart said.

And yet many delegates arriving in Boston expressed the opposite fear, that a too cautious approach by Kerry would allow Bush to evade responsibility for serious exaggerations of the threat in Iraq -- a failure documented in recent reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Sept. 11 Commission.

Disagreements about what tone to strike on Iraq came out during the party's deliberations over its platform, according to someone who was present. Party leaders came to agreement fairly quickly on other points, but labored over how to characterize the decision to go to war.

Ultimately, the platform committee settled on language designed to embrace all viewpoints in the party: "People of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war in Iraq, but this much is clear: The administration badly exaggerated its case, particularly with respect to weapons of mass destruction and the connection between Saddam's government and Al Qaeda."

The platform also stresses the importance of "a stable and secure environment in Iraq" and vows to bring many other nations into both peacekeeping and the process of building a stable Iraqi government.

"If you make it, 'We shouldn't have gone in' . . . we lose," said one Kerry foreign policy adviser, referring to the platform discussions. "Did Bush adequately plan for the postwar? No. Did Bush bring the international community in at any of three key junctures? No. And that's why this is a mistake."

Kerry, in numerous interviews, has been pressed to answer whether he would or would not have gone to war -- and he has answered that he would have gone only under certain conditions. He has defended his vote to authorize war as a means of putting pressure on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to cooperate with arms inspections.

"What I voted for was an authority for the president to go to war as a last resort if Saddam Hussein did not disarm and we needed to go to war," Kerry told CBS's Lesley Stahl in an interview two weeks ago. "I think the way he went to war was a mistake."

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, the designated vice presidential nominee, quickly added: "I know you want to make this black and white, but the difference is: If John Kerry were president of the United States, we would never be in this place. He would never have done what George Bush did. He would have done the hard work to build the alliances and the support system."

But many Democrats object to the Kerry-Edwards position on the grounds that it implicitly cedes to Bush his assertion that Iraq was a threat to the United States. In polls, about half of all Democrats disagreed that Iraq was a threat even when Bush was contending to "know" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Some Democrats argued before the war that even a well-armed Iraq was less dangerous than Iran or Syria, both of which were more likely to aid Al Qaeda.

The Globe poll of delegates suggested that 84 percent claim that they had opposed the war at its inception. Many, in interviews, said they feel vindicated by events and outraged that Bush persuaded Americans to support a war that should never have been fought.

Kerry, too, has accused Bush of misleading the public, but Gore, Kennedy, Dean, and others go further, suggesting that the war was not justified under any circumstances.

In April, Kennedy called the Iraq War "Bush's Vietnam" and followed up last month by referring to Iraq as "the mirage of a threat."

Gore declared in late May: "The unpleasant truth is that President Bush's utter incompetence has made the world a far more dangerous place and dramatically increased the threat of terrorism against the United States."

This kind of tough talk seems closer to the heart of the delegates convening in Boston, but even some who may privately agree do not want those views trumpeted to the nation during the convention.

"I think Bush probably did mislead the country in that the reasons he gave turned out not to be right," said Al From, head of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. "But we're in there, and it's a mess."

"Kerry's argument is that he has a better plan to deal with it than Bush, and that's the argument he has to make," added From. "There has always been a substantial antiwar part of the party, but even people who opposed the war voted for Kerry and Edwards. In the end, it's not going to be a damaging division for the party."

The only possible damage, From and others contend, comes if the Democrats' attacks on the Iraq War convey the idea that the party is not vigilant about national security.

In many of the industrial battleground states, working-class voters have teetered between the two parties in recent elections, lining up with the Democrats on economic issues and Republicans on national security.

This year, Democrats in those states say they sense an opening on the Iraq War, with many blue-collar voters getting fed up with what has become an exercise in nation-building. But those voters remain deeply respectful of the military and skeptical of antiwar rhetoric.

Kenny Perdue, the secretary-treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO and a convention delegate, said that he is detecting more dissatisfaction with the war among his home-state voters than he expected but that he thinks Kerry should mostly concentrate on other issues and let Bush self-destruct.

"Every time the president turns around, something he said in his State of the Union address turns out not to be true," said Perdue.

Kevin M. Leyden, a political scientist at the University of West Virginia, said the Democrats still lack the vocabulary to criticize military policy without appearing to criticize military values. And he, too, said he thinks a lot of antiwar rhetoric will hurt more than help.

"The war cuts both ways here," he said. "West Virginians are quite patriotic and have a long record of serving the nation through military service. There is, for a lot of West Virginians, positive, patriotic feelings toward the military. But at the same time, a lot of West Virginians are disillusioned with the way the decision to go to war was made."

If anger over Iraq War gives the Democrats a better chance in West Virginia, which they lost in 2000, patriotism and national security issues may help Bush peel off some blue-collar Democrats in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

For Democrats to win in Ohio, they must run up huge margins in Cuyahoga County, the party's Cleveland-area stronghold; likewise, Democrats in Pennsylvania must win Philadelphia by an overwhelming margin.

In 2000, Gore ran up a whopping 80.02 percent in Philadelphia, where he campaigned hard, and won a narrow victory in Pennsylvania. Gore won Ohio's Cuyahoga County with 62.6 percent, without campaigning heavily, but it was not enough to offset Bush's margins downstate.

Thus, most observers believe, Kerry has to replicate Gore's romp in Philadelphia and exceed his margin in the Cleveland area. Higher black turnout would help, but most analysts say Kerry has to trounce Bush among white working-class voters as well.

In Cleveland and Philadelphia, political machines led by Democratic mayors and union organizers should help Kerry considerably, but he still must overcome some Democrats' support for the troops in Iraq and respect for Bush as commander in chief.

Driving through South Philadelphia, the area strung with colored lights from recent Italian festivals, one still sees a lot of American flags and "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers. Most are old, and some residents say they have lost patience with the war, but the bumper stickers bespeak an allegiance that Kerry would disregard at his peril.

"I think Bush is good for [fighting] the terrorists and militarily," declared Henry Drury, 46, a lifelong Democrat.

Added Andrew Santo, 68, who has voted for both Democrats and Republicans: "I think the war in Iraq is the best thing we've done. It tells the rest of the world we're not afraid."

Almost everyone in insular South Philly, which gave Gore 70.6 percent of its votes, supported the Iraq War initially, but many have changed their minds, residents say. But it has been the long duration and high cost that has rankled, they say, not the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

"The only thing I hold against Bush is he sent all that money to Iraq," contended Nicholas Dominick, as he looked ahead to Kerry's acceptance speech. "We need all that money here. You know what you could do with that money? Build a few more cities."

Globe correspondent Alan Wirzbicki contributed to this report.

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