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Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's week in Boston is his best chance to grab American hearts and minds with a minimum of filter by print, internet and electronic commentators.

If Sen. Kerry, D-Mass., and running mate Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., capitalize with a 15-20 percentage point "bounce" from coverage of the four-day party convention, they are going to be hard to overtake. A strong kick from the show in Boston will also give Kerry-Edwards a huge head start. In other years, the Republican convention would follow the Democratic one by a couple of weeks at the most.

But Bush senior adviser Karl Rove had a brainstorm: To put off their convention until the first week of September to coincide with the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That decision is looking dumb and dumber. It was made in the flush of confidence that the Iraq war would be over by blossom time 2003.

Ground Zero was going to be the stage for Bush's victory celebration over terrorism. Now a unanimous decision by the bipartisan 9/1 1 Commission has "struck the set" as they say on Broadway. That political theater is dark.

"We are not safe," the 9/1 1 Commission ominously reported, adding that known threats from al-Qaida were not taken seriously enough by our government under Bush and his predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton.

Instead of enjoying a Roman-style "triumph" procession down Fifth Avenue, our armed forces are so stretched that veterans are being called back, tours are extended and enlistments are advanced. The war treasury is depleted. The cupboard's so bare the GOP House last week killed housing projects for service families.

Worse, the carnage continues. Those working our military hospitals see the real cost. "They brought in 45 Marines at Bethesda (Naval Hospital) the other day; they were messed up, arms missing, legs gone, some of them blind," a 15-year attendant told me. "It just breaks your heart."

It's hard to imagine a more advantageous setting for the Democrats. They could miss their chance however, and then their own warts will come back into play. For example, Kerry created a big target when he made Samuel H. "Sandy" Berger a principal foreign policy advisor earlier this year.

For as long as he could, Berger stayed in the background. But Republicans leaked that Berger has for months been under criminal investigation for removing classified documents about terrorism from the National Archives last fall.

Berger was a key officer in Clinton's national security shop at the White House for eight years. Kerry knew all about Berger's past -- unless, like President Bush, he doesn't read newspapers. Berger was deputy national security advisor when the Democratic National Committee was sending seamy hustlers -- for a price -- to the White House to meet with Berger and other National Security Council officials. These monied White House visitors, according to senators of both parties who investigated them, plied influence for Hong Kong, Indonesia and the People's Republic of China.

Berger's presence in the Kerry campaign -- he has since resigned his position -- could conjure up damaging images of the Clinton White House such as massive contributions that had to be returned and reappearing documents. It would be hard to make a strong emotional case against Vice President Cheney and contracts awarded to his former company, Halliburton, in Iraq if Berger was called on to explain his contacts with foreign fund-raisers all over again.

Berger claims that Kerry did not know about the seven-month investigation of Berger's caper at the Archives until last week.

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