Can Kerry close the deal?

Published: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 31, 2004 at 11:00 p.m.

As someone who, early in the Democratic primary season, didn't give John Kerry much of a chance, I didn't expect to be all that impressed by what political observers billed as the speech of Kerry's life. Yet it was hard not to be.

Kerry delivered the goods and not a moment too soon.

All week, the word among delegates to the Democratic National Convention was that this presidential race is John Kerry's to lose. Many said Kerry should be much more aggressive in pointing out what Democrats see as some of President Bush's shortcomings. At the top of the list: the perception that the administration misled the American people about the reasons for going to war in Iraq, and then added injury to insult by mismanaging the occupation of that country.

In politics, as in business, mistakes create opportunities for competitors. But the competitors must take advantage. If they don't, they can't expect to win many converts.

By mishandling the war in Iraq - and then arrogantly refusing to admit mistakes - President Bush created opportunities for the other side. But Democrats still have to close the deal.

It doesn't help that Kerry has flaws of his own. The Massachusetts senator can't shake the perception that he says what people want to hear and that he is too flexible in some of his positions. His mission in Boston was clear: Convince Americans not only that he is ready to be president, but also that he could be appealing and inspiring and believable enough so that people want him to be president.

Going into the convention, the only thing that was clear was that Democrats want desperately to have the opportunity, come November, to tell the current president: "George, you're fired."

Still, Democrats haven't always seemed all that excited about the man who would replace him. Pre-convention polls showed that while many Americans are increasingly uneasy about President Bush's leadership, many are not convinced that Kerry would do much better. It also has to sting Democrats that, when asked who they trust to keep the country safe, the majority of Americans continue to pick Bush over Kerry.

It's easy to see why. Kerry has a knack for generating ambivalence. I had almost forgotten that. But this week, a friend with whom I went to college across the river in Cambridge about the same time that Kerry first ran for the Senate reminded me that Kerry has long been thought of as too conservative for many genuine liberals in Massachusetts. His support of welfare reform and of anti-crime legislation hardly endeared him to the left. Of course, that was before George Bush came along. Now Democrats are so eager to retake the White House that they only thing that matters to many of them is that Kerry is starting to look like a winner.

Democrats also think they have some winning themes to carry them through to November. At home, the idea is to portray Kerry as a unifier who can bring together a country divided into what John Edwards calls "two Americas." That was the message sent by Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, who in a magnificent keynote address, called for one America independent of race or ethnicity and decried the notion of blue and red states. And on foreign policy, Democrats hope to cast Kerry as a kind of scholar-warrior - smart enough to resist the urge to go to war, but tough enough to fight a war when doing so is absolutely necessary.

Kerry did his part to advance that notion, saying in his speech: "I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president. Let there be no mistake: I will never hesitate to use force when it is required."

The line was a real crowd-pleaser. And yet, beyond the doors of the FleetCenter, I'm not sure Democrats won any new converts. I would guess that if you tuned into the convention wanting to give Bush the boot, you felt the same way when the curtain fell. And if you had questions about whether Kerry can be consistent in his views and really believes what he says, you probably still do.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. writes for the Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is

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