Kerry's angry base

Posted: Jul 26, 2004 12:00 AM

 BOSTON -- What makes this Democratic National Convention look like the most unified such assemblage in the party's fractious history is a universal loathing for George W. Bush. That is the very emotion that John Kerry's high command recognizes it must avoid playing to as the presidential nominee is presented to the nation this week.
One of Sen. Kerry's closest and most influential advisers put it to me this way over the weekend: "We can turn this convention into a nonstop Bush-bashing rally, and everybody will be happy. But we already have those votes. If we do that, we end up with 42 percent of the vote and lose the election."

 This situation points to needle-threading that will be necessary in Boston this week. Party activists at the Fleet Center would like nothing better than constant denunciations of President Bush. Indeed, Kerry's angry base will get plenty of that. But national convention delegates, who long ago were stripped of decision-making authority, are now not even active participants in this national pep rally. The Kerry campaign's message is intended to soar over their heads to that mysterious band of undecided voters who will elect the president.

 The goal of Kerry's managers is to keep the convention energized and enthusiastic while not projecting a message that is obnoxious to the great mass of Americans. Nowhere does the delicacy of this feat become more apparent than in the nominating speech for Kerry.

 Kerry's acceptance speech Thursday night, a ritual that as recently as 1960 was not even part of the national convention procedure, will be the climax here. He will be fully scripted with a decisive but nonbelligerent address. It is the nominating speech to be delivered that night by former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia that gets tricky.

 Cleland has emerged from obscurity to become, at least temporarily, one of the Democratic Party's most beloved figures by virtue of his defeat in 2002 for re-election. Had he won, it is fair to say he probably would not have had a speaking slot, much less a featured, prime-time appearance.

 Until 2002, Cleland had been treated gently by Republicans as a Vietnam War triple amputee veteran, and he never lost an election. This treatment enabled him to float in the Senate under the ideological radar, representing conservative Georgia while voting the straight liberal line. It ended two years ago with then Rep. Saxby Chambliss's Republican campaign, which pointed out that Cleland bowed to organized labor's demands to vote against the homeland security bill because of union representation questions.

 The Georgia campaign suddenly made Cleland a new symbol of rage that has characterized the party ever since the 2000 Florida recount. Previously a Senate backbencher who seldom spoke, he now is engaged in steady denunciation of Bush. A recent sample of Cleland's rhetoric claimed Bush "concluded that Daddy was a failed president" because he cut short the 1991 Gulf War "so he would be Mr. Macho Man by removing Saddam Hussein himself." When asked, Kerry declined to associate himself with those remarks.

 While Cleland was listed a week ago as "introducing" Kerry to the convention, there was indecision whether to give him the higher profile role of delivering the nominating speech. The announcement of that role was made only Saturday. When I asked a senior Kerry aide whether Cleland's speech would be censored, he replied with a smile: "We don't censor in the Democratic Party. We do edit." Thus, Cleland's remarks will be tailored to the broad electorate rather than to his ardent listeners at the Fleet Center.

 The delegates probably would love to hear from left-wing propagandist Michael Moore, whose current film, "Fahrenheit 9-11," embodies the party's Bush-bashing rage. While an uninvited guest at this convention, Moore has been officially welcomed by spokesmen for the Massachusetts Democratic Party and the Congressional Black Caucus. What the Kerry team does not need is a high profile here by Moore.

 John Kerry won't call for the immediate removal of U.S. troops from Iraq. He won't talk about gun control. He won't embrace Michael Moore, and he will "edit" Max Cleland. He won the nomination some time ago, and is now running for president.