BOSTON - Day one of the Democratic Convention underscored Sen. John F. Kerry's determination to challenge President Bush on national security while emphasizing a deeply personal contrast rooted in their divergent experiences during the Vietnam War era.
From former Presidents Carter and Clinton to 2000 nominee Al Gore and former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, a succession of speakers Monday night charged that Bush had failed to improve America's security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That signaled the Democrats' determination to confront the president on the national security record his campaign has assumed would be his strongest asset.
Even more strikingly, Clinton and Carter not only articulated the familiar Democratic argument that Kerry's experience in Vietnam has prepared him to serve as commander-in-chief, but pointedly contrasted his service with Bush's decision to serve in the National Guard during that period.
In an explicit and combative passage, Clinton declared: "During the Vietnam War, many young men - including the current president, the vice president (Dick Cheney) and me - could have gone to Vietnam and didn't. John Kerry came from a privileged background and he could have avoided going, too. Instead, he said: 'Send me.' "
Clinton's remarks, even more remarkable given the controversy he faced over his own efforts to avoid serving in Vietnam, demonstrated the extent to which Democrats are relying on Kerry's combat experience to overcome the traditional party disadvantage on national security issues, especially at a time when such concerns loom so large for voters. It also gave the evening a more confrontational tone than Kerry aides promised when they said the convention would focus less on assailing Bush than burnishing Kerry.
Yet the Democratic efforts to tarnish Bush's credibility as commander in chief may be complicated by their ambivalence on the national security issue that has generated the election's most emotion: the war in Iraq.
While a succession of Democrats strongly implied they believed the war in Iraq was a mistake, none of the leading speakers said so explicitly.
That fuzziness underscored a contradiction at the heart of the Democratic case this year. For all of the party's emphasis on national security, Kerry has refused to say flatly whether he agrees with Bush's most significant foreign policy choice: the decision to invade Iraq. As in their party platform - which avoids taking a direct position on the invasion - Democrats Monday sought to move beyond that question.
"Regardless of your opinion at the beginning of this war ... wouldn't we be better off with a new president who hasn't burned his bridges to our allies, and who could rebuild respect for America in the world?" Gore asked.
Some analysts agree this strategy could be effective by focusing on disillusionment with the violence and continuing U.S. casualties in Iraq.