Boston, Mass. — (AP) - Democrats assailed President Bush's handling of the Iraq war Tuesday night and painted a vivid portrait of John Kerry as a decorated war hero. "He earned his medals the old-fashioned way, by putting his life on the line," Teresa Heinz Kerry told the party's national convention.
More than 900 soldiers have been killed and nearly 6,000 wounded in "this misguided war in Iraq," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy told delegates packed into the FleetCenter.
By invading Iraq, Kennedy said, the Bush administration "made it harder to win the real war on terrorism, the war against al-Qaida. None of this had to happen."
And in a keynote speech that drew frequent and sustained applause, Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama described Kerry as a Vietnam War hero who has long made "tough choices when easier ones were available." Without mentioning Bush by name, he said the president had failed to level with the public before ordering troops into Iraq.
For all the professional political speechmaking, it fell to 12-year-old Ilana Wexler of Oakland, Calif., founder of Kids for Kerry, to evoke some of the loudest applause of the night. "Our vice president deserves a long time out," she said of Dick Cheney, who recently cussed out Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on the Senate floor.
Kerry campaigned in Virginia and Pennsylvania en route to his arrival in the convention city on Wednesday. "I will and I can fight a more effective war on terror than George Bush is," he said at a Philadelphia rally.
Later, from his hotel room, he watched his wife's speech to the delegates. "She looks great," he said.
Kerry's vice presidential running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, was already in town, anticipating his appearance before the delegates and a prime-time television audience on Wednesday night.
The Massachusetts senator is in an enviable position for a challenger, with many pre-convention polls showing him even or slightly ahead of Bush. At the same time, a new Washington Post-ABC poll underscored the challenge confronting the Democrat during his four-day convention.
More than half the voters surveyed said they knew only some or hardly at all about his positions on the issues. And after months of sustained GOP television attacks on Kerry, more than 40 percent of those polled rated the man from Massachusetts as too liberal on most issues.
The result was a Democratic convention playbook easy to discern - skip lightly over social issues such as abortion. And present the four-term Massachusetts senator as strong on national security issues, a veteran who won medals in one war and is now, a generation later, ready to lead the country in the current one.
"When we send our young men and women into harm's way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they're going," said Obama. "... And to never, ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace and earn the respect of the world."
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota pursued the same two-pronged approach, hailing Kerry as a Vietnam veteran who showed bravery under fire while he faulted Bush's approach to national security.
"He risked his life to save the life of others, and he led his small band of brothers to safety," Daschle said of Kerry.
At the same time, he said of the Bush administration, "We reject the claim that we can't afford to provide our troops with access to affordable health care. When our soldiers do right by America, we must do right by them."
If it was a message that Democrats wanted to convey, it was one the Republicans worked to tarnish.
Cheney took up the attack while campaigning in California. "When Congress voted to authorize force against Saddam Hussein, Sens. Kerry and Edwards voted 'yes.' But when it came time to fund the troops doing the fighting in Iraq, it was another story," he said. "We need a President who will back our troops 100 percent, and that's exactly what we've got in George W. Bush."
Several of Kerry's former primary foes had their turn at the convention podium. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who stirred emotions early in the campaign when he vowed to represent the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," drew some of the loudest applause of the night.
"I was hoping for a reception like this. I was just kind of hoping it was going to be on Thursday night," he said, a reference to when Kerry delivers his acceptance speech.
Our vice president deserves a long time out.
Heinz Kerry skipped the criticism of the Bush administration and focused on her husband's character.
"No one will defend this nation more vigorously than he will - and he will always be first in the line of fire," she said.
"But he always knows the importance of getting it right," Heinz Kerry said. "For him, the names of too many friends inscribed in the cold stone of the Vietnam Memorial testify to the awful toll exacted by leaders who mistake stubbornness for strength."
Heinz Kerry made the biggest speech of her life at a time when she is feeling the renewed glare of the campaign spotlight, after telling a Pennsylvania reporter to "shove it" during a delegation party Sunday.
"By now I hope it will come as no surprise that I have something to say," she said, to a sea of "We Love Teresa" signs. "My right to speak my mind, to have a voice, to be what some called 'opinionated,' is a right I deeply and profoundly cherish."
Heinz Kerry earned one of her biggest applause lines when she shared her hope that "women - who have all earned the right to their opinions - instead of being labeled opinionated, will be called smart or well-informed, just as men are."
Kerry's famously blunt wife stayed in safe waters Tuesday, focusing on her customary themes of early childhood education, affordable health care, and the environment, all of which she has helped support through her work as chairwoman of the Howard Heinz Endowment and the Heinz Family Philanthropies.
Democrats met while Bush was at his Texas ranch. White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said he hadn't watched any of the opening night of the convention, and wasn't expected to tune in for the second night, either.
The evening's speaking program ran from prominent Democratic politicians to the promising.
Kennedy was the former, a 72-year-old liberal lion who has worked hard to bring the convention to his native city - and even harder to send his junior Senate colleague to the Senate. The delegates erupted in cheers of "Teddy" when he moved to the podium, but the cheers grew louder when he mentioned the names of Kerry and Edwards.
Obama was in the latter group, the son of a goat herder from Africa and a woman from Kansas. A 42-year-old state senator, he's an overwhelming favorite to win election this fall as the third black senator since Reconstruction.
Like Kennedy, he accused Republicans of seeking to divide America.
"Urban against rural. City against suburb. Whites against blacks. Men against women. Straights against gays. Americans against Americans," was how the Massachusetts senator put it. "America needs a genuine uniter, not a a divider who only claims to be a uniter," he said.
Obama said Americans must not allow "spin masters and negative ad peddlers" to divide the country.
"I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America - there's the United States of America," said Obama.
He said people don't expect government to solve all their problems but sometimes do need help.
"They sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all," Obama said.
He drew laughter and applause with a reference to himself as "a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too."
In a move considered as a slap in the face to the Republican Party, Ron Reagan spoke to the Democratic delegates as well. He told them voters in November will face a choice "between reason and ignorance."
His speech focused on just one issue -- stem cell research. The son of the late former president wants an expansion of that research -- which scientists believe could lead to cures for a range of fatal diseases. They include Alzheimer's Disease. Ronald Reagan died of complications of the disease last month.
The research is opposed by many anti-abortion activists -- because the cells are typically removed from human embryos that are later destroyed.
President Bush has ordered sharp restrictions on federal funding of the research.
In his speech, Ron Reagan said the "theology of a few" shouldn't be allowed to "forestall the health and well-being of the many."
Reagan is a TV journalist and long-time liberal activist.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)