'Kerry the hero' starts countdown to dislodge Bush from White House

As his party gathers for this week's convention, it's make-or-break time for the Democrat challenger

This is make or break week for John Kerry. Over the next four days in a Boston turned into a fortress to match the Green Zone in Baghdad, Democrats will be selling their man for the White House to a country that knows remarkably little about him.

It seems an eternity ago, not a bare eight months, that the Massachusetts Senator's presidential campaign was sinking like a stone. Just before Christ-mas, as Mr Kerry took out a $6.4m (£3.5m) mortgage on his townhouse in fashionable Beacon Hill, the question was not whether he could beat George Bush. Reporters were taking bets whether he would fold his hand even before the first primary-season vote was cast in Iowa.

But propelled by his upset win in Iowa, Mr Kerry staged a comeback for the ages. The mortgage has been repaid, and barely three months before the election, he rather than Mr Bush is in the driving seat. Though the impact of his very popular selection of John Edwards as his running mate has faded, he leads by a point or two in almost every poll, even when the independent Ralph Nader, Al Gore's nem- esis four years ago, is included. When the Democratic convention opens in his home town tomorrow, Senator Kerry will be at the head of a party united as rarely before by an all-consuming desire to beat President Bush.

The aim this week is to repeat Bill Clinton's feat in July 1992, when the little-known Arkansas Governor went into his convention in New York, more or less tied with George Bush the elder. He left it 20 points ahead and cruised to victory that November.

There are clear parallels between then and now. Both have selected attractive Southern Senators as running mates (Tennessee's Gore in 1992, North Carolina's Edwards now). More even than 12 years ago, this week's gathering has been sanitised, into a giant party political broadcast, where every whiff of argument has been ironed from proceedings. Now as then, the convention will lean heavily on the candidate's biography: proceedings in Boston will feature a bio-pic dwelling on his heroic service in Vietnam, closely modelled on the rose-tinted The Man from Hope produced by Mr Clinton's Hollywood pal Harry Thomasson, which stole the New York show.

Mr Kerry, of course, cannot match Mr Clinton's convention "bounce". The US is if anything even more polarised today than in the cliffhanger 2000 election. The overwhelming majority of voters, 83 per cent according to one recent poll, have already picked their man - and nothing that occurs at the minutely choreographed, utterly unspontaneous pageants that are modern nominating conventions will change their minds. But even a small net gain for the Democrat, say 4 or 5 per cent, may be decisive. By dint of his office, George Bush is an extremely familiar quantity to the electorate, and his convention, in New York in five weeks' time, will change even fewer minds. First, though, Mr Kerry must get it right.

There will be important supporting roles - for his wife Teresa, for Democratic lions like former presidents Carter and Clinton, for Ted Ken-nedy, for various of his old comrades in arms from Vietnam, for Ron Reagan Jr, and, of course, for Mr Edwards. Basically, however, the next four days are about John Forbes Kerry, whose acceptance speech in Thursday night primetime will be the convention's climax.

For all the newsprint, airtime and cyberspace expended on Mr Kerry since he swept this year's primaries, few Americans know who he is, or what he stands for. His support largely reflects what he is not - the non-George Bush, the non-Republican. This week he must find a theme, and tell Americans why they should vote for him, and what he will do if elected the 44th President on 2 November.

Mr Kerry, alas, is not one of nature's salesmen. Rather, he is a reserved and thoughtful man who prefers not to talk about himself. During 20 years in the Senate, he earned the reputation of a loner - not disliked, but not given to glad-handing or effusion. He does not have the warmth and ability to connect of Bill Clinton, and does not project Jimmy Carter's virtuous honesty.

He is a plodding orator, prone to "Senate-speak". The famously incurious Mr Bush likes difficult issues boiled down to one-page summaries. Mr Kerry, by contrast, knows those issues inside out and thrives on nuance. Mr Bush sees things in black and white, Mr Kerry in countless shades of grey.

But that very subtlety makes him a far harder political sell than the what-you-see-is-what-you-get President. It also gives unlimited fodder to the Bush campaign's merciless ads lampooning the Massachusetts senator as a "flip-flopper".

But Mr Kerry has a compelling life story Mr Bush cannot match. His heroic record in Vietnam (thrice wounded and decorated several times for gallantry in combat) will be front and centre in Boston - especially on the final night, when speakers include General Wesley Clark, the former Nato supreme commander and presidential contender himself who might be defence secretary in a Kerry administration, Max Cleland, the former Georgia senator who lost three limbs in Vietnam, and Jim Rassman, the Green Beret whose life the young Navy lieutenant Kerry saved in the Mekong delta in 1969.

For the convention to succeed, the competent but uninspiring Senator who enters it must leave it as a war hero with a compelling vision for his country. If he does, then Mr Kerry may have effectively closed the deal with the American voter, just as Bill Clinton did in Madison Square Garden back in 1992. If not, his chance may have gone, perhaps for good.