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Inside Politics

All lights shine on Kerry

Script will direct focus of icons, rising stars on nominee

By Greg Botelho
CNN

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John Kerry and daughter Vanessa cheer Sunday evening at the Red Sox game in Boston.
THE MORNING GRIND
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MAKING THEIR CASE
Day One: Monday


• Theme: "The Kerry-Edwards Plan for America's Future"

• 4 p.m. ET: Convention called to order by Terry McAuliffe

• 7-9 p.m. ET: Speakers include Bill Richardson, Al Gore, Glenn Close, Barbara Mikulski

• 9-10 p.m. ET: Speakers include Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton
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(CNN) -- Speeches by ex-presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and by rising stars John Edwards and Barack Obama are calculated not only to rev up excitement at this week's Democratic National Convention, but also to cast a national glow on John Kerry, political pundits say.

Kerry, the party's presumptive nominee, enters the Boston soiree in a virtual tie with President Bush, according to several national polls, and hoping the convention produces a significant poll bounce that will hold through November.

The event will showcase a host of iconic and emerging Democrats -- some arguably more charismatic than Kerry, who some critics have called stiff, patrician and aloof.

But election experts say there is little doubt Kerry will be the life of this party, even before he makes the short stroll Thursday from his Boston home to the FleetCenter. (Special Report: American Votes 2004, the Democratic convention)

"Some people can have sensational moments at the convention, but don't fool yourself," CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider said. "It's all about John Kerry. They're selling something."

The convention begins with a flourish, with Clinton and Carter taking center stage, much as they did two times each upon accepting the Democratic presidential nomination.

They will be joined by former Vice President Al Gore, the Democrats' nominee in 2000, and former first lady and current Sen. Hillary Clinton, thought by some to be a prime presidential contender in 2008 or 2012. Both were mentioned as potential front-runners for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, before opting not to enter the race.

"This is part of a strategy to put major people on first [to] get the nominee off to a big bang," said Ken Warren, an independent pollster and St. Louis University professor. "The presenting of presidents, in particular, is a show of force ... It's also sort of a gamble, but they are all going to reinforce Kerry's qualifications and character."

Orchestrated event

Indiana University professor Marjorie Hershey says it is no coincidence that these four Democratic stalwarts will speak Monday, as far as possible from Kerry's appearance Thursday.

"Democrats want Bill Clinton at the convention, but they don't want him too close to Kerry's speech," she said, adding that the example holds for Hillary Clinton, Gore and Carter as well. "They don't want those who dislike Clinton to too closely associate him with Kerry, and they don't want [Clinton] to overshadow Kerry."

Kerry's campaign has calculated every convention move -- from the selection and order of speakers, to the biographical movie on Kerry, to numerous planned photo opportunities -- to drum up support and feature their candidate in the best possible light.

"What's going on is the presentation of a very carefully crafted image of their candidate," Hershey said. "The stakes are very high ... They don't want any slip-ups."

That means none of the convention speakers will have much room to roam rhetorically, lest they invoke the Democratic establishment's ire in a tense, tight election season.

"The Democratic convention almost has to be perfectly orchestrated," Warren said. "It can be all over for Kerry if the Republicans do a better job."

Prime political opportunity

Although old hands will likely snare opening night headlines, several up-and-coming Democrats will aim to boost their national profile at the convention -- as New York Gov. Mario Cuomo did in 1984, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton did in 1988 and Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. did in 2000.

Obama, a state senator from Illinois who is seeking a U.S. Senate seat, will deliver the convention's keynote address Tuesday. Popular Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and former congressman, ambassador and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson will speak Wednesday night.

Others on the schedule include Sen. Ted Kennedy, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton -- each with a history of emotional, sometimes zealous remarks.

Yet Warren said Kerry does not appear concerned that rising stars or high-profile speakers like the Clintons will overshadow him at the convention. He said Kerry's choice of Edwards, generally thought to be more charming and approachable than Kerry, as his running mate indicates the four-term senator's willingness to partner with magnetic personalities as long as it raises his chances of winning in November.

"Kerry calculated all that when he chose the convention speakers," Warren said of others possibly grabbing the spotlight. "Even [Bill] Clinton might overshadow Kerry in a sense, but that doesn't mean he detracts from the appeal of the Democratic ticket."

After all, Kerry isn't competing against fellow Democrats but against Bush, of whom many Americans already have strong opinions.

"Kerry's great advantage, despite what some people say, is that the threshold is low," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "People who have decided to vote against Bush are looking for an acceptable candidate, not another Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Delano Roosevelt."

Small, important target

Polls show a historically small pool of potential swing voters, buttressing pundits' predictions that Kerry won't come close to repeating the 15-point post-convention bounce that Clinton received in 1992, no matter how well he does in Boston.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released July 22 suggests Americans are unusually interested and enthusiastic about the presidential race, with 83 percent saying they have made up their minds about who will get their vote. (Also: Polling on Bush and Kerry in three key states)

"The Democratic base is as energized as I've ever known it to be," said Sabato, author of 22 books on politics, about Kerry's need to inspire party members. "Bush is hated, and that's all the invective you need."

Kerry's main goal will be to win over "soft supporters" of him and Bush, as well as undecided voters, even though most of those people are not likely to watch the convention.

Party leaders hope that extensive media coverage will convey a sympathetic picture of Kerry that will seep into the mainstream, convincing the relatively small portion of the electorate needed to tip the scales come November.

"The best advertisers are brought in to create this image of Kerry as a super guy and a great decision-maker who can become an excellent president," Warren said. "You've got to do all these things perfectly."


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