updated 7/25/2004 5:25:43 PM ET 2004-07-25T21:25:43

In a windowless room beneath the podium, a team of speechwriters is imposing John Kerry’s will on the words of the other speakers at the Democratic National Convention. Their orders: Go easy on the Bush bashing.

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Each speech is read and re-read, heavily edited and rehearsed as part of a tightly controlled process designed to impress independent voters who are tired of negative politics. Mindful of polls showing voters say they need more information about Kerry, the team also is ensuring that speeches are laced with the candidate’s biography and policies.

Campaign spokeswoman Debra DeShong said speakers are getting clear direction from the Kerry team “because we do have a very clear message that John Kerry and John Edwards will make us stronger at home and respected in the world. Our speech process is helping people get comfortable with that message.”

For most speakers, the process began when they received a three-page memo titled “Procedures for Convention Speakers” from Jack Corrigan, Kerry’s convention point man. It offered the services of speechwriters and coaches, as well as personal assistants to help speakers navigate security, deadlines and other big-day minutia.

First drafts were due a week before the convention, Corrigan wrote, warning that “suggestions” might be made “to help highlight the campaign’s themes for the convention. Please understand that this system is not intended to ‘take control’ of your speech; rather, it helps ensure that each speaker makes the best possible speech and avoids embarrassing repetitions.”

In case they didn’t get the message, the speechwriting team, headed by Californian Vicky Rideout, contacted speakers or their staffs with guidance:

  • Keep it short. Speakers assumed they had more than the typical three minutes to deliver their remarks. Several egos were bruised.
  • Stick to the message. Each night of the convention has a theme, such as plans for America’s future on Monday.
  • Keep it positive. Criticism of Bush is allowed, but only as a subtle or indirect dig when comparing Kerry’s vision to Bush’s record. Red meat won’t be served at this convention.

Texts poured into the team’s offices in downtown Boston — about 100 for delivery in the prime 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. time slots, and an additional 160 scheduled for afternoons. Most needed editing to shorten. Some needed more extensive work.

“Make speeches gooder and more short,” read a sign jokingly posted at the speechwriters’ headquarters.

They moved this week to new offices, tucked beneath the convention’s elaborate stage, across the hall from FleetCenter locker rooms. There are three rehearsal rooms nearby, complete with podiums.

Surrounded by cinderblock walls and exposed wires, a half dozen convention staff speechwriters, two Kerry staff writers and two Kerry campaign researchers pore over the drafts.

One speaker submitted a text that accused Bush of “failing to fund No Child Left Behind,” his education initiative. The line was softened by the speechwriting staff to say, “We can do better. We need to fund No Child Left Behind.”

A congressman’s claim that Bush has “deceived Americans” about Iraq was watered down in a revised draft to promise that Kerry will never go to war without ample reason.

The speechwriters kept intact about 75 percent of keynote speaker Barack Obama’s speech, adding references to Kerry policy and rephrasing some points to echo the language used by Kerry.

Few escaped the heavy hand.

“We went back and forth a little bit,” said Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., of his interactions with the Kerry speech team. “But I gave in and they gave in a little bit and I’m happy with it.”

Some speakers are too big to push around, but Kerry advisers say even VIPs like President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton understand the strategy to build up Kerry while giving Bush a bit of a pass.

Former Vice President Al Gore, who has fired up Democratic crowds with harsh criticism of Bush, also “understands the drill,” said adviser Carter Eskew.

The Kerry strategy is based on polls showing more than 90 percent of voters firmly aligned with one party or another, with as little as 5 percent up for grabs. Kerry’s polling shows that those “persuadable” voters don’t like negative politics. They give Bush poor approval ratings, but they still aren’t comfortable enough with Kerry to vote against the incumbent.

“Swing and independent voters are very much up for grabs. Kerry has to make the sale, and he has a long way to go to make the sale,” said Harold Ickes, who helped run President Clinton’s re-election convention in 1996.

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