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Party stars send their message

Top Democrats press case for Bush's defeat

Democrats raised the curtain on their four-day presidential nominating convention last night with spirited speeches urging voters to elect Senator John F. Kerry for his national security credentials and the economic and social programs he promises.

A star-studded group of Democrats took turns onstage at the FleetCenter to laud the presumed nominee, culminating with appearances by former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a prime-time hour broadcast live across the nation.

Clinton repeatedly brought the crowd to its feet with a pointed series of contrasts between Kerry and Bush, accusing Republicans of favoring wealthy voters, purposely polarizing the electorate and squandering the economic prosperity that ballooned in the 1990s.

''They need a divided electorate, but we don't," Clinton said.

''The president had an amazing opportunity to bring the country together, under his slogan of compassionate conservatism, and to unite the world in the struggle against terror," Clinton continued, referring to Bush during the period after the Sept. 11 attacks. ''Instead, he and his congressional allies made a very different choice. They chose to use that moment of unity to try to push the country too far to the right."

Senator Clinton, introducing her husband, made a similarly pointed comparison; Kerry, she argued, will ''lead the world, not alienate it."

Al Gore, the former vice president, and Jimmy Carter spoke before Clinton, touching on historic themes designed to motivate the party's faithful constituencies without tying themselves too closely to the new Democratic ticket.

Eager to convey a positive tone, the speakers barely mentioned President Bush by name. But all of them drew sharp policy and personality distinctions, warning of growing security and economic dangers if Bush is reelected this fall, and portraying Kerry as the wiser -- and, they argued repeatedly, ''stronger" -- steward of American interests.

With most of the convention's real excitement yet to come, the opening night saw a flurry of activity outside the convention hall and beyond as Kerry campaigned in the swing state of Florida and as his running mate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, prepared to travel to Boston to address the convention tomorrow night. At the FleetCenter, the speeches from established Democratic standard-bearers roused thousands of party loyalists who have so far seemed unusually disciplined in their effort to win the White House after four years out of power.

Gore, whose loss to Bush in 2000 still generates fury among many Democrats, used his early 8 p.m. appearance to remind frustrated voters of the Supreme Court decision that led to his defeat. Although seen as a sometimes difficult candidate four years ago, party officials hoped that Gore would reignite the rage that followed his loss -- then fade into the background as Kerry and Edwards emerge with a forward-looking message of optimism.

''To those of you who felt disappointed or angry with the outcome in 2000, I want you to remember all of those feelings," Gore said, after making several cracks about winning the popular vote and recounting ballots. ''But then I want you to do with them what I have done: Focus them fully and completely on putting John Kerry and John Edwards in the White House."

The Kerry campaign had discouraged speakers from extensively bashing Bush in order to prevent accusations they are running a negative race as Republicans have charged. For the most part, last night's Democratic speakers complied, and the program featured a steady stream of happy footage of children's choirs, smiling delegates, and audience members singing and dancing during the interludes.

''We Democrats will bring the American people a positive campaign, arguing not who's good and who's bad, but what is the best way to build the safe, prosperous world our children deserve," said Bill Clinton.

Republican operatives quickly fired off an e-mail accusing Clinton of hypocrisy, saying he had criticized Bush just one day earlier.

The night saw some provocative moments: when Senator Dianne Feinstein of California warned that the Bush administration had developed new generations of nuclear weapons, putting children worldwide at risk, a Democratic National Committee-produced video showed footage of a nuclear mushroom cloud.

Bill Clinton said in an interview before his official appearance that he thinks the Democratic ticket is poised to win, as long as Kerry can create a bond with voters during the convention.

''I think John Kerry needs to show people who he is," Clinton said on NBC. ''He needs to close the deal with the American people. I would say this is likely to be a fairly close election. But on today's facts, he has the advantage."

In his remarks in the convention hall, Clinton pursued several goals, from undercutting Bush on the economy and security to pumping up Kerry. With uncharacteristic restraint, Clinton delivered his speech in exactly the allotted time slot, ending precisely at 11 p.m. as planned.

Clinton began the process of retelling Kerry's life story -- one of the main goals this convention week -- by citing his voluntary service in Vietnam as an example of the senator's commitment to the public good. And Clinton described Kerry as having two important personal traits: ''an insatiable curiosity about the world around him and a willingness to hear other views, even those who disagree with him." The two combined, Clinton said, amount to ''conviction and common sense."

''Strength and wisdom are not opposing values," Clinton said, drawing enormous cheers. ''They go hand in hand, and John Kerry has both."

Carter, who appeared with former Vermont governor Howard Dean during the Democratic primaries, criticized the Bush administration for ''unilateral acts" that have isolated the United States around the world. ''Recent policies have cost our nation its reputation as the world's most admired champion of freedom and justice," Carter said, accusing Bush of implementing a ''confused and disturbing strategy of 'preemptive war.' "

''We need John Kerry to restore life to the global war against terrorism," Carter said. ''We cannot lead if our leaders mislead. You can't be a war president one day and claim to be a peace president the next, depending on the latest political poll." But he rounded out his speech with an optimistic turn. ''There is a road that leads to a bright and hopeful future," Carter said. ''What America needs is leadership. Our job, my fellow Americans, is to ensure that the leaders of this great country will be John Kerry and John Edwards."

In the convention's opening hours yesterday afternoon, as delegates and journalists waited in long lines outside the auditorium to pass through stringent security checks, less prominent Democrats went through procedural moves before a mostly empty convention floor.

But before the media focused fully on the guests' speeches, the speakers began echoing the signs posted around the convention floor promising ''a stronger America," and laying out the event's central theme: that President Bush has failed to make the nation safer and may have endangered it with his approach to war in Iraq.

''We must be strong, we must be innovative, and we must be bold," Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa said in his floor speech. The Kerry-Edwards ticket, Vilsack said, ''will make our country stronger at home and more respected in the world."

William J. Perry, the former defense secretary, made a similar point, ridiculing the contention by candidate Bush in 2000 that ''help is on the way" for beleaguered members of the military. ''With John Kerry as president, help really will be on the way," Perry said. ''It is time for a change. . . . The stakes could not be higher."

While Gore kept Clinton at arm's length in 2000, last night's prime-time address was a sign the Kerry campaign will not be as reluctant to employ the former president, perhaps even having Clinton join Kerry on the stump, said Tad Devine, a Kerry adviser. Devine, also a strategist for the Gore campaign, said it was understandable that the former vice president kept Clinton at a distance in order to step out of his shadow and to avoid the taint of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But the public perspective on Clinton has changed over the last four years, Devine said.

''I think voters, when they think of the Clinton presidency, they think very much about the economy and want a return to an economy that is booming as much as it was in the '90s," Devine said. ''I think the former president will be a big part of the campaign. I also think that he's an enormous asset in energizing the base of the Democratic Party."

Indeed, Clinton mania seemed to surge throughout the FleetCenter as delegates prepared to hear from their former standard-bearer. Clinton buttons were ubiquitous.

One couple played with Bill and Hillary puppets while other delegates watched and cheered.

Raja Mishra of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at akornblut@globe.com.

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