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A STRATEGY REVIVED

Kerry stays focused, projects strength

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- For 90 minutes last night, Senator John F. Kerry tried to make political gains by reviving a strategy that helped him in the 2004 Democratic debates and primaries: castigating the president on Bush's signature issue, national security, while pledging to be a stronger commander in chief, the essence of Kerry's "bring it on" mantra challenging Bush.

"I can make America safer than President Bush has made us," Kerry said in the first minute of the first presidential debate. "I believe America is safest and strongest when we are leading the world and leading strong alliances. I'll never give a veto to any country over our security. But I also know how to lead those alliances."

The remark echoed Kerry's attack lines from perhaps his most decisive debate last winter, 15 days before the Iowa caucuses, where his surprise comeback set the stage for his nomination victory. Facing front-runner Howard Dean, Kerry accused him of poor judgments on Iraq, Al Qaeda, and national security, charging Dean with a pattern of inconsistency that "raises a serious question about your ability to stand up to George Bush and make Americans safe and secure.

"When you were asked by The Concord Monitor about Osama bin Laden, you said you couldn't prejudge his guilt for Sept. 11," Kerry said at another point. Turning to Dean with a quizzical expression, he added: "What in the world were you thinking?"

Kerry was barred by debate rules from directly questioning Bush, and he never said "bring it on" last night, but his strategy was much the same as the one that won him the nomination -- undermining the president's credibility as a wartime leader while attempting to present himself as a credible alternative.

"Kerry won the nomination because he convinced voters in Iowa, then New Hampshire, then the rest of the country that he was best suited to be president, and that he was best suited to take on Bush at a time of war," said Bruce Gronbeck, director of the University of Iowa Center for Media Studies and Political Culture.

"Kerry didn't land any knockout punches at the primary debates. He wasn't especially hard-hitting. He just convinced people that in a field of nine or 10, he was the best."

During the primary debates, Kerry shifted between a cautious, almost laconic style on the stage with his rivals and a tactical, bullish style -- the latter proving more popular with several voters who said they liked it when he seemed to come to life, according to interviews afterward. Last night's performance was more consistently bullish: Kerry attacked Bush's leadership decisions with every response, which several political analysts called necessary to undermine the incumbent's lead in polls on who would keep America safer.

"He wasn't a combatant at the primary debates on a regular basis -- he basically stayed out of the fight," said Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic consultant. "He looked presidential and came off as knowledgeable [in the primary debates]. What he needed was credibility as a wartime leader as well. He needed to convey that sense of stature again last night."

Kerry also avoided repeating one of his biggest stumbles in the primary debates: his clause-laden, pretzel-like answers, especially on Iraq. In a Feb. 28 forum in New York City, late in the nomination race, both Kerry and his last major rival, Senator John Edwards, were asked whether they had regrets over voting to authorize the war in Iraq. After Kerry responded at length, Edwards quipped memorably, "That's the longest answer I've ever heard to a yes-or-no question."

The Democrat also proved more strategic about citing his own Vietnam War service. During the primaries, Kerry would sprinkle the word "Vietnam" into his speeches and debate responses, so much so that a group of anti-Kerry Vietnam veterans organized to challenge all the talk of his war heroism. During his give-and-take with Bush, Kerry tried to avoid using the word Vietnam.

Instead, he said that "as someone who has been in combat," he would go to war as a last resort and that he knew what it was like turning "a corner" to find the enemy lying in wait.

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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