A Rousing Start for the Dems

To launch their convention, they rolled out the big guns from Jimmy Carter to Al Gore, with Bill Clinton hitting the target best

By Alexandra Starr

It was the night the Democrats looked back to look forward. The party's two living ex-Presidents -- and its almost-President, Al Gore -- roused the delegates on the first night of the Democratic National Convention in Boston on July 26. While the star power of the lineup was an obvious draw, it wasn't without perils.

After all, the charismatic Bill Clinton always has a propensity to hog the spotlight. The former First Lady, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton who introduced her husband, remains a galvanizing figure with Presidential ambitions of her own. And Gore's address had its own set of potential pitfalls. Gore, Clinton's Veep who won the popular vote in 2000 but lost the electoral vote and the election to George W. Bush, has been scathing in his critiques of the Bush Presidency ever since.

But if Kerry operatives were worried (and they probably weren't, since all the speeches were vetted first), they have to be smiling today. President Clinton did outshine all those who came before him. But Kerry won't give his acceptance speech for three more days. And the 42nd President made a convincing case for making the Massachusetts Senator his heir to the White House and demonstrated that he's still his party's most accomplished communicator.


  While Gore made the 2000 election his theme, he laced his remarks with genuine humor. Plus, the underlying exhortation of the former Veep' remarks -- every vote counts -- seemed an appropriate curtain-raiser to the celebration.

Given that Gore has been so vocal in his opposition to the Iraq invasion, it's intriguing he wasn't the speaker who hammered most on the issue. That role fell to former President Jimmy Carter. From a strategic perspective, this probably made sense. Carter, an 80-year-old winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has engendered much goodwill around the globe over the past two decades, acting as a peace negotiator and monitor for democratic elections in developing countires.

His eminence as a statesman gives him an almost nonideological air. Zingers coming from his mouth don't seem quite so nasty. And in his folksy Georgian drawl, the former Navy officer chided President Bush for questions about his record of military service in the National Guard. Carter also centered his remarks on Bush's foreign policies, arguing the good will the U.S. had enjoyed post-9/11 had been "squandered by a virtual unbroken series of mistakes and miscalculations" by Bush.


  Gore's address was punchy and humorous, but not without bite. References to the 2000 election were numerous. "Take it from me," he told the audience. "Every vote counts." And he jokingly -- although also pointedly -- highlighted some of the weak spots in Bush's record. "I know about the bad economy," Gore said. "I was the first one laid off." The address was topped with a kiss from wife Tipper -- an echo of the famous lip lock the two engaged in when Gore was crowned his party's nominee in 2000.

Hillary Clinton -- who received a raucous welcome -- was ostensibly introducing her husband (see BW Online, 7/27/04, "The Biggest Chill? From Hil"). But her short speech contained little about him. After vouching for the Democratic ticket, she focused her comments on how to keep America safe.

Certainly, these issues have particular resonance for New Yorkers. But Hillary might have had a broader personal strategy in her remarks. Female Presidential candidates have long struggled with voter preconceptions that they aren't as strong on defense and national security issues as men. Senator Clinton may have been trying to prove her bona fides on that front, with an eye on an eventual run for the White House herself.


  Bill Clinton delivered the finale -- and he didn't disappoint, laying out the most articulate critique of the Bush Administration that has been offered on the stump so far this year. The Arkansan has long had a gift for putting a human face on federal policy, and that skill was in full view. Clinton identified himself as part of the top 1% of American taxpayers -- and one of the biggest beneficiaries of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. He detailed the trade-offs that Bush's tax policy entailed, describing curbs on after-school programs, veterans care, and the number of police officers on the street.

This isn't the first time Clinton has touched on these themes. At a big Washington (D.C.) fund-raiser shortly after the primaries, he gave a speech that featured many of the same lines. Kerry spoke shortly thereafter, and the differences between the stem winders was painful to watch. Where Clinton was passionate and articulate, Kerry meandered -- a good chunk of the very partisan audience hit the exits before he had finished his remarks.

Kerry started his speech that day with a query for the former President: "What are you doing every day from now until November?" You can bet Kerry will want Clinton on the road every day until November, provided the silver-haired, silver-tongued orator is strategically deployed. Clinton makes a better case for the nominee than Kerry has been able to make for himself.

Maybe that will change on July 29, when Kerry gives his acceptance speech. Even if it doesn't, Kerry will want Clinton pitching for the ticket through the fall.

For more on the Democratic National Convention, see BusinessWeek Online's continuing coverage at www.businessweek.com/election2004.htm

Starr is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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