Rupert Cornwell: Hawkish yet visionary, Kerry proves compelling

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The Independent Online

They said he could not connect, that he was too "complicated" and distant for Americans to get to know him, let alone get to like him. Well, if John Kerry did not connect on Thursday evening, he never will.

They said he could not connect, that he was too "complicated" and distant for Americans to get to know him, let alone get to like him. Well, if John Kerry did not connect on Thursday evening, he never will.

Maybe his acceptance speech was an aberration, when the muse of oratory for once alighted on the shoulder of a man notorious for his stodgy and ponderous style of speaking. But at the Fleet Centre arena in Boston, an unfamiliar, somehow liberated John Kerry was on view. The dispassionate man found passion. He smiled, his sentences were short and emphatic, his message clear, his turn of phrase, on occasion, compelling. At moments, he was almost visionary.

Whatever your political views, the last night of a convention is an electrifying goose-pimples occasion, more movie than reality when the candidate declares to the ecstatic faithful: "I accept your nomination for President of the United States." For John Forbes Kerry, whose ambition for more than 30 years has been to follow his hero, the other JFK, to the White House, the moment must have been unbelievably sweet. Mr Kerry had long prepared himself for this night, and it showed.

The warm-up was a tribute from his old comrades-in-arms from the Swift boat Mr Kerry commanded in the Mekong Delta 35 years ago. And from the instant he opened with a crisp salute and the words: "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty", the tone was set.

It was, of course, a dig at George Bush, who famously failed to report for duty, either for Vietnam, or for part of his service in the National Guard. But it also was designed to showcase a candidate who has seen national security at the sharp end. "I defended this country as a young man," Mr Kerry said, "and I will defend it as President."

On the war against terror and the war in Iraq, the President and his challenger differ on style rather than substance. Parts of Thursday's speech could have come from Mr Bush. Not only did the Democrat wrap himself in the Stars and Stripes; he even implicitly embraced the doctrine of pre-emptive war, of striking your enemy before he strikes you.

But the tone was utterly different, and Mr Kerry's critique of the Bush approach was devastating. "America will never go to war because it wants to," he said, "but only because it has to." He emphasised not only "strength" (the word in one form or other cropped up 17 times in the speech, The New York Times calculated), but also "trust". Mr Kerry even turned against the President one of the arguments that Mr Bush used best in 2000, that he would restore "trust and credibility" to the White House.

Never, he said would he "mislead America into war". True, Mr Kerry had nothing new to say about Iraq, other than to promise that he would attract allies to take some weight off the shoulders of the US.

There was not a single specific reference to the Senate, to which he has devoted the past two decades. But he addressed his reputation as a "flip-flopper", perhaps the most damaging weapon in the Bush/Cheney armoury, by admitting he saw the complexities of life, "because some issues just aren't that simple". Mr Kerry even moved adroitly on the delicate terrain of religion, noting that, unlike Mr Bush, he did not wear his faith on his sleeve; it was not a question of having God on America's side, but of "doing as Abraham Lincoln did, and praying humbly that we are on God's side".

At the Democratic convention, John Kerry did everything that was expected of him, and then some. The question is, was it enough? Within a week, at most, the pendulum will start to swing the other way.

Mr Bush barely waited for the end of Mr Kerry's speech to hit the campaign trail in the vital swing state of Missouri. He will spend most of August on the road, test-marketing a new stump speech setting out his goals for a second term.

Financially, too, he has an advantage, thanks to the quirks of campaign finance rules which limit Mr Kerry to $75m (£41m) of public funding between his nomination and the election.

That restriction kicks in for the President only after his own renomination in New York on 2 September. Mr Bush will spend his remaining $40m to $50m of campaign funds on TV advertising in a dozen close states to undermine his opponent.

Then comes the Republican convention. Mr Bush will get his own "bounce" from an occasion that will match the Democrats for unity and artful stage management. Bob Dole, the former Republican presidential candidate but now pithy, impartial commentator, said: "Kerry's got a 10-point bounce, lasting exactly 30 days."

Two issues may shape the outcome. One is the Kerry/Edwards gamble that Americans are deeply disturbed by the global unpopularity of Mr Bush and his policies. The second issue is that of national unity. Messrs Kerry and Edwards will portray their opponents as deeply and unnecessarily divisive, abroad and at home.