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THE MIDDLE GROUND
KERRY SERVES NOTICE THAT PRACTICALITY, NOT DOGMA, WILL DRIVE HIS CAMPAIGN

Newly minted Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry delivered the goods Thursday night. Often criticized as wooden and unable to connect with voters, the Massachusetts senator capped the party's convention with a speech that was strategic, focused and, on most counts, effective. In what was surely his best speech of the campaign, Kerry convincingly presented himself to the nation as a man who has what it takes to be president in threatening times.

The speech was decidedly centrist, focusing on issues such as national defense and the economy, and other than an elliptical reference to presidents who toy with the Constitution, avoiding such liberal touchstones as gay marriage, abortion and affirmative action. No surprise, there, really. General election candidates tend to move toward the center after months of romancing their political bases during the primaries.

George Bush played to the Republican far right at Bob Jones University four years ago, then sold himself as a compassionate conservative centrist in the general election. He hasn't governed that way, which may help Kerry if enough people feel betrayed by the policies the president has pursued, or may hurt him if they take Bush's record as proof that political leopards don't change their spots.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Kerry's speech was its effort to close off traditional avenues of Republican attack. Kerry played up his record as a war hero, warned Republicans against questioning his patriotism or religious faith and challenged them to keep the campaigning clean.

That will make it more difficult for Republicans to rework old strategies, as in the Pledge of Allegiance gambit of 1988. Considering the history of the incumbent, they're sure not going to wonder if Kerry ever smoked pot.

The speech did include some of the usual convention nonsense. Kerry took a sentence or two to criticize the Bush administration's comments on outsourcing of jobs without bothering to mention that, whatever pain it may cause, it's an increasingly common business practice that a president can't do much to influence. It's like complaining about the tide going out -- rhetorically effective for someone whose boat is suddenly marooned, but beyond that, of no real significance.

Kerry also avoided specifics about what he would do in Iraq. If he has a plan for improving the situation there, beyond promising somehow to attract more international help, he didn't tip his hand. And does anyone really know at this point if he would have gone to war in Iraq had he been president the past four years? What different strategies would he employ to find Osama bin Laden and to diminish the threat of terrorism?

Of course, convention speeches are not meant to be road maps. What Kerry needed to do, and what he did with gusto, was establish his general election bona fides, to overcome threshold doubts and make voters, and therefore his opponents, take him seriously. What that does is keep him in the game. It doesn't get him elected over an incumbent that most Republicans badly want to retain.

Kerry needs to build on this speech over the next three months, to fill in the gaps -- which Republicans are sure to notice -- and make voters believe not just that he is credible, but that he is reliable, a case that he has not yet made and on which the incumbent is vulnerable. If Kerry can do that, he stands a decent chance of making this president the country's second single-term Bush.

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