Kerry warms up for the speech of his life

In the elegant surrounds of his wife's beachfront mansion on the resort island of Nantucket, John Kerry has closeted himself away this weekend to work on the most important speech of his life - his primetime address to the Democratic convention in his native Boston in 11 days' time.

Much has happened in the last two weeks: the selection of North Carolina's Senator John Edwards as his running mate; a spate of polls showing he has pulled into a narrow lead in the White House race; the apparent fading of the Ralph Nader threat - not to mention the renewed speculation that a nervous George Bush will drop Vice-President Dick Cheney from the Republican ticket.

But as Americans start to ponder whether to send Mr Bush to an early retirement on 2 November, they are nagged by the same question as four months ago, when the Massachusetts Senator completed his primary campaign near-sweep: who precisely is John Forbes Kerry, and how would he perform as the most powerful man in the world?

Presidential nominating conventions are not what they used to be. All is pre-scripted and choreographed to the nanosecond. But Mr Kerry's televised acceptance speech on 29 July will be his best and perhaps his last chance to introduce himself to the people.

John Kerry is a mass of contradictions. He is one of the most liberal members of the Senate but also, thanks to the $1bn fortune of his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry, unquestionably the richest.

He is a "regular guy" who favours blue-collar sports such as ice hockey and a war hero who risked his life in Vietnam to save those of his comrades. But he is also arguably the most cosmopolitan candidate ever, certainly since that other JFK from Massachusetts, 44 years ago.

More than $80m (£43m) of Bush/Cheney campaign TV advertising has tried to provide an answer to the question, seeking to define the Senator as an unreconstructed liberal, and a "flipflopper" who constantly changes position on issues.

Fortunately for the Demo-crats, attack ads are no match for real life - unflattering reports on the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the shambolic pre- war intelligence on Iraq's fictitious weapons, which Mr Bush so devoutly believed, coupled with an economic recovery which most people haven't noticed in their daily lives.

Mr Kerry hasn't exactly set the campaign trail alight, but polls consistently have him a point or two ahead. He cannot coast to victory. He desperately needs to make a compelling case why he should be the 44th President.

The Kerry method of speech-writing is odd. Aides say he sets down his words in longhand, and then edits the text by cutting and pasting - literally, with scissors and glue. The process is thorough, but laborious and cumbersome, a bit like the man himself in public. It also magnifies the candidate's tendency to over-elaborate. On the night of 29 June, nothing would be more disastrous for the Democratic cause.

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