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DEMOCRATS TAKE CENTER STAGE
CLINTONS CAPTURE CONVENTION ; HARSH CRITICISM OF BUSH FROM BOTH CARTER AND GORE

BOSTON -- Roused by fighting speeches given by two former presidents and a narrowly defeated candidate, buoyant delegates Monday night kicked off a four-day Democratic National Convention they hope will return the White House to their control.

Former President Bill Clinton and particularly his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, were given thunderous welcomes at Boston's FleetCenter.

Bill Clinton said, "Tonight I speak as a citizen, eager to join you here in Boston as a foot soldier in the fight for our future, as we nominate a true New England patriot for president."

The former president said, "Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas on what choices we should make, rooted in fundamentally different views of how we should meet our common challenges at home and how we should play our role in the world.

"Democrats want to build an America of shared responsibilities and shared opportunities," Clinton said. "Republicans believe in an America run by the right people, their people."

Convention managers said they wanted the gathering to stress the positive, to underscore Sen. John F. Kerry's qualifications to be president.

However, former President Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, the party's 2000 candidate, offered harsh -- sometimes raw -- criticisms of Republican President Bush to cheering Democrats hungry for victory.

Under Bush, Carter said, "The U.S. has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends, and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of 'pre-emptive' war."

Referring to course corrections by Bush, Carter said, "You can't be a war president one day and claim to be a peace president the next, depending on the latest political polls."

All the goodwill showered on the United States after the 9/1 1 terrorist attacks was squandered by Bush "in a virtually unbroken series of mistakes and miscalculations," Carter said.

Still, the delegates seemed freer to celebrate their party's heritage with the sting of Clinton's impeachment trial five years behind them.

The rhetoric was suspended by a memorial to those who died on 9/1 1. The house lights were darkened and 15,000 delegates held tiny flashlights as Jay Lefkowitz, a violinist from the Boston Youth Symphony, played the hymn, "Amazing Grace."

Former Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, charmed the delegates by re-enacting their famous loving kiss at the convention in Los Angeles.

It was a poignant end to a bittersweet speech given by Gore in which he asked "those watching at home who supported President Bush four years ago: Did you really get what you expected from the candidate you voted for?"

"Wouldn't we be safer with a president who didn't confuse al-Qaida with Iraq?"

Looking tan and rested, Gore waved and smiled to cascades of cheering partisans.

He joked, "They say America is the land of opportunity, where every American boy and girl can grow up to win the popular vote."

Gore topped Bush by 500,000 popular votes but the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed he lost the electoral vote.

Gore said he has channeled his own disappointment into a determination to elect Kerry president.

"Let's make sure this time every vote is counted," Gore said. "And let's make sure that the Supreme Court does not pick the next president, and that this president does not pick the next Supreme Court."

Recent polls showing Kerry and Bush in a statistical dead heat have only 10-15 percent of the probable voters undecided.

After last week's flurry over whether Sen. Clinton would address the convention, managers relented and allowed her to introduce her husband, the former president. And the introduction was expanded into a full address in prime time.

In it, Sen. Clinton recalled her reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"I visited Ground Zero right after we were attacked," she said. "I felt like I was standing at the gates of hell. I hope no American ever has to witness a sight like that again. That tragedy changed all of us. I know it changed me."

News political reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report

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