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Amid convention scrambling, rift shows

Page full of 3 -- Senator John F. Kerry’s suggestion that he would delay accepting the presidential nomination until after the Democratic National Convention, floated on Friday, has provided the clearest evidence yet of a growing divide between city officials and party officials planning the event.

With Kerry and the Democratic National Convention Committee on one side, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino and his convention host committee on the other, an inherent tension exists, owing to their disparate missions and different political stakes. Until now, that tension has stayed largely below the surface, with private grumbling rarely making it to the public arena.

But yesterday, Menino again called on Kerry to accept his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention, in keeping with the practice at previous conventions. He said Kerry’s goal of leveling the spending playing field, while worthwhile, can be accomplished by other means than delaying the nomination process.

Rather than affect convention planning that has been proceeding for more than 18 months, Kerry should seek to have Congress change the Federal Election Commission rules, Menino said. Both political parties should have the same start date for the official "general election cycle," regardless of when their conventions are held, he said.

"What should happen is somebody should file legislation to correct the flaw in the law, and close this five-week gap," the mayor said yesterday in an interview. "There should be a way of correcting this. You don't have to change the convention at all."

In a statement that caught local convention planners by surprise, the Kerry campaign said Friday that it was considering delaying formal acceptance of the nomination for several weeks, so that the spending limits of the general campaign would kick in later in the election season. Such a move would help Kerry better compete financially with President Bush, whose expected nomination at the Republican National Convention in New York would come five weeks after the Democrats' event in Boston.

Stephanie Cutter, a Kerry campaign spokeswoman, said the news came out via media reports, not a campaign announcement. She said delaying the formal nomination remains one of a series of options being considered to help Kerry compete with the "Republican money machine," and she praised Menino's efforts in convention planning.

"He's been a key leader in making the convention a success and in showcasing the city of Boston as the world-class city that it is," Cutter said. "Regardless of the final decision, the Democratic convention will continue to be a celebration of the next president of the United States and the kickoff of the national effort to take back the White House and put America back on track."

Peggy Wilhide, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Convention Committee, said organizers have developed a great working relationship with the mayor and his team, and are collaborating on countless details to make the July 26-29 convention a success.

"We're getting along extraordinarily well with the mayor and the host committee," she said.

Yet Menino and his committee were clearly displeased by the timing of the Kerry campaign's announcement. Barely 24 hours before the news broke, security officials from the Secret Service, the State Police, and the Boston Police Department had outlined road closings that will be in place around convention time, and the impact is expected to be far worse for area commuters than had been previously described.

Menino has much on the line politically regarding the success of the convention, because he was instrumental in bringing it to Boston. Recent studies have predicted that the convention will be a net economic loss in Boston, because it is displacing other big events this summer and because shutdowns of major roadways for security needs will affect worker productivity.

The mayor may also need city taxpayers to chip in for the convention, because fund-raising has slowed in recent months and costs are threatening to increase. A convention without a formal nomination could take away from the event and make it harder for organizers to draw interest from television networks.

Menino was still grumbling yesterday that he hadn't been told of the Kerry campaign's idea until several hours after the first news media reports on the subject. Cutter, who worked as the convention's spokeswoman until late last year, confirmed the reports to the press before Menino got his first phone call. Even local convention organizers said they were caught off-guard by the announcement.

Yesterday, Menino said his advice regarding whether to accept the nomination at the convention hasn't been solicited by anyone connected to the Kerry campaign. Asked whether he thinks he should be in on the decision-making process, the mayor responded, "No comment."

Kerry began putting his stamp on convention planning in March, and he now has a team of staff members working alongside planners in Boston. Menino and Kerry have never had a close working relationship -- the mayor has long been closer to Kerry's senior Senate colleague, Edward M. Kennedy -- but the tension between the two sides predates Kerry's involvement in planning.

In October, Menino phoned convention chairman Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, to smooth over hurt feelings that stemmed in large part from a perceived snub. Richardson had scheduled a meeting with the host committee's financial team, but Menino ordered it canceled, leaving Richardson upset about how he had been treated, according to party officials.

While personalities no doubt play a role in the current tensions, analysts say many of the problems are systemic and unavoidable. The convention host committee, known as Boston 2004, is charged with raising the money that is spent largely under the direction of the Democratic Party and the Kerry campaign to stage a four-day extravaganza at the FleetCenter.

That's been slow going of late, with a $4.6 million fund-raising gap and the possibility of costs rising still further to make the event everything the Kerry campaign wants it to be. National Democrats have said recently that they may involve Kerry directly in fund-raising, to ensure the convention has the cash it needs.

And while the Democratic National Committee is concerned exclusively with electoral success for Kerry and his fellow Democrats, Menino and local convention officials must worry about keeping Boston area residents satisfied with the event. The party wants a message that will help Democrats triumph in November, while host committee members want to see their city portrayed in a glowing manner during the convention, said Linda Bilmes, a lecturer in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

"You have a number of different competing agendas," Bilmes said. Meanwhile, Bush campaign officials are considering holding political rallies during the convention should Kerry not accept the nomination.

"If Kerry does not accept the nomination, it's not a nominating convention, it's a political rally," said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt. "Certainly there would be very serious consideration to holding political rallies for all four nights to preserve equal coverage for our candidate." Kerry yesterday declined to answer reporters' questions on his way into Fenway Park, where he was attending the Red Sox game against the Toronto Blue Jays. As he made his way to his seat on the third-base line, he was met mostly with cheers, though he also drew a smattering of boos. Kerry went to the game with his daughter, Vanessa, and John Sasso, his point man at the Democratic National Committee.

If Kerry does choose to delay the nomination, he will be effectively calculating that the fund-raising advantage the move would give him is worth the price of "putting people's noses out of joint in Massachusetts," Bilmes said.

"I don't think anybody outside of Massachusetts is going to care," she said. "In terms of winning the election, I don't think it matters."

But the move could further sour relations with the host committee and the businesses that are supporting its efforts. Clayton Turnbull, vice president of the convention host committee, said Kerry should accept the nomination at the convention to make the point that the event "is about patriotism," and not simply part of a "business deal."

"It is our hope that Senator Kerry would accept the nomination in Boston," he said. "I know politics has become a financial chess game, but the convention is a significant part of our patriotism to America."

Turnbull, who also serves as cochairman of the Boston 2004 business liaison committee, said it was too early to predict how a non-nominating convention would be perceived by the business community. Many large local businesses have donated large sums to the event. Turnbull called on Kerry to make a final decision quickly in any event.

"I think the highest priority is to have him make that decision clear," he said.

One local convention organizer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that the Kerry campaign should think about scaling back convention activities if the candidate won't accept the nomination in Boston. Such a move could cut costs and reduce the hassle to commuters, particularly if the convention events can be squeezed into fewer than four days, the organizer said.

But Menino said he would not suggest that Kerry cut back on events, and said he expects the convention to look much the same even if there is no formal acceptance of the party nomination. He said the host committee will work with whatever plans Kerry decides to go with.

"I'm not saying we should scale it back or anything," the mayor said. "It's going to be a great show in the city."

Glen Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.  

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