IMAGE: Former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
NBC News
Former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York gave spirited arguments to elect Sen. John Kerry.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 7/27/2004 7:37:27 PM ET 2004-07-27T23:37:27

Democrats gave their biggest stars, the Clintons, a rapturous welcome Monday night as the party kicked off its presidential nominating convention determined to put Sen. John Kerry in the White House.

“I’m practically speechless,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said as delegates erupted in raucous cheers when she took the podium to introduce her husband, the former president.

The senator, who is believed to harbor presidential ambitions in 2008 if Kerry is defeated in November, gave a brief but spirited address that praised Kerry, her fellow Democratic senator from Massachusetts, as “a serious man, for a serious job.”

Clinton made only passing references to President Bush, in keeping with Democratic leaders’ determination to focus on Kerry, who she said would “lead the world, not alienate it; lower the deficit, not raise it; create good jobs, not lose them; solve a health care crisis, not ignore it.”

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‘Foot soldier’ in Kerry’s army
The loudest welcome then followed for Bill Clinton, the last Democrat in the White House. He, too, sought to deflect the attention back to Kerry.

“Tonight, I speak as a citizen, eager to join you here in Boston as a foot soldier in the fight for our future, as we nominate a true New England patriot for president,” he said. “The state that gave us John Adams and John Kennedy has now given us John Kerry, a good man, a great senator, a visionary leader.”

Like other top party leaders, Clinton promised “a positive campaign, arguing not who’s good and who’s bad, but what is the best way to build the safe, prosperous world our children deserve.”

Video: Clinton speaks

Departing from a series of earlier speakers who criticized the war in Iraq and Republican foreign policies, the former president devoted much of his address to traditional Democratic themes of economic equity and protection of social services.

“When I was in office, the Republicans were pretty mean to me,” Clinton said. “When I left and made money, I became part of the most important group in the world to them. At first I thought I should send them a thank you note — until I realized the rest of you were paying the bill, and then I thought better of it.”

“We tried it their way 12 years, then we tried it our way eight years and then we tried it their way again four years. ... Our way works better,” he said.

“John Kerry took tough positions on tough problems,” Clinton said. “He knows who he is and where he’s going. ... He proved that when he picked John Edwards to be his partner.”

Clinton said in an interview with NBC News’ Tom Brokaw beforehand that “I don’t think there’s a lot of danger” that he would overshadow Kerry. “... I had a great life in politics. And now I’m sort of back to being a foot soldier, just like I was.” 

Gore takes it easy
Even former Vice President Al Gore, who has become an increasingly impassioned spokesman for the liberal wing of the party, muted the harshness of his recent attacks Monday night. He criticized Bush for his handling of Iraq, the economy and a range of other issues Monday night, but he couched his barbs as questions rather than as the direct slashing attacks that saw Gore recently call the president a “moral coward.”

“To those of you who felt disappointed or angry with the outcome in 2000, I want you to remember all of those feelings,” said Gore, the winner of the popular vote four years ago. “But then I want you to do what I have done — focus them fully and completely on putting John Kerry and John Edwards in the White House.”

“I sincerely ask those watching at home who supported President Bush four years ago, did you really get what you expected from the candidate you voted for?” Gore asked. “Has the promise of compassionate conservatism been fulfilled? Or do those words ring hollow now?”

“For that matter, are the economic policies really conservative at all? Did you expect, for example, the largest deficits in history? ... And the loss of a million jobs?”

He raised similar questions about the administration’s environmental policies and pursuit of diplomacy.

Video: Getting to know Kerry

“Regardless of your opinion at the beginning of this war, isn’t it now obvious that the way the war has been managed by the administration has gotten us into very serious trouble?” he asked.

And on the war on terrorism, he asked, “Wouldn’t we be safer with a president who didn’t insist on confusing al-Qaida with Iraq?”

“He understands the drill,” said Carter Eskew, an adviser to Gore. “When you’re at a convention, you have to balance your desire to appeal to the hall, which is core Democrats, and the TV audience — and those people what to hear more about John Kerry.”

NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell reported that Gore’s original speech was discarded Sunday night and rewritten by Eskew and Eli Attie, a former aide to Clinton. Aides to Kerry made few changes after hearing one of three rehearsals Monday.

Carter goes on the attack
The hardest hits of the evening were delivered by former President Jimmy Carter, who questioned Bush’s military record and accused him of needlessly taking U.S. forces into “wars of choice.”

Carter noted that he served in the Navy under Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, “both of whom had faced their active military responsibilities with honor.” Likewise, Kerry, he said, “showed up when assigned to duty, and he served with honor and distinction,” drawing a clear, although unspoken, distinction with Bush.

“We had confidence that our leaders, military and civilian, would not put our soldiers and sailors in harm’s way by initiating wars of choice unless America’s vital interests were endangered,” said Carter, who alleged that, under Bush, “the United States has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of ‘preemptive’ war.”

“In the world at large, we cannot lead if our leaders mislead,” Carter said. “You can’t be a war president one day and claim to be a peace president the next, depending on the latest political polls.”

For his part, Kerry previewed some of the issues he was to highlight at the convention during a visit Monday to Kennedy Space Center in the key state of Florida.

“We need to push the curve of discovery,” he said. “We need a president who believes in science and who’s prepared to invest America’s efforts to cure Parkinson’s and AIDS and diabetes and Alzheimer’s and do stem cell research.”

He appealed to Republicans and independents to “stop and think” about whom they will vote for in November. There’s nothing conservative about “piling debt on the shoulders of our children and driving the deficits up as far as the eye can see,” he said.

Kerry praised Clinton for balancing the government’s budget, reducing its debt and creating 23 million jobs. “I also want to create better jobs,” he added.

Kerry’s grand entrance planned for Wednesday
Sunday night, Kerry popped into Fenway Park for a brief surprise appearance at the Yankees-Red Sox game, throwing out the first pitch.

Video:

“It’s great to be back in Boston for a game like this,” Kerry said after the Red Sox won, 9-6. He will make a grand entrance at the convention Wednesday, the day before he accepts the party’s presidential nomination.

Security was extremely tight at the downtown convention center for the first presidential convention since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Camouflaged military police kept watch on elevated rail lines overlooking the FleetCenter, the sports arena where 4,350 delegates will gather. Helicopters circled overhead constantly.

Bomb-sniffing dogs and officers with guns patrolled nearby streets. Metal barricades about 7 feet high directed foot traffic and limited access to the FleetCenter. Numerous downtown streets were closed for the convention, forcing commuters to seek alternative routes to and from work.

Upbeat message stressed
Despite the precautions and the terrorism threat, the convention’s message was relentlessly upbeat , underscoring the unity the party seeks to knit behind Kerry as the man Democrats hope will deny Bush a second term.

No platform fight loomed, and the relative lack of Bush-bashing was a strategy conceived in part because of polls indicating that Kerry’s Democratic base was already solidly behind him. The relatively small proportion of undecided voters instead wanted to hear more about him and his plans.

“If you want to be president, you have to try to bring people together,” Clinton said in the NBC interview. “And that’s what I would counsel Kerry to do. And that’s what I think he will do.”

Protests, meanwhile, were few.

A federal judge quickly denied a request Monday by anti-abortion groups, including Operation Rescue, to restore their permit to protest in front of Kerry’s town house in Beacon Hill. Kerry supports abortion rights.

The Secret Service, which provides Kerry’s security, asked the city to revoke the permit, according to the groups. A spokeswoman for the Secret Service confirmed that the permit had been granted and revoked and said the agency and city officials were working with the groups to find another location.

Two people were taken into custody Sunday after separate groups — about 3,000 primarily protesting the war in Iraq and about 1,000 demonstrating against abortion — exchanged angry words near the FleetCenter.

“This is just the beginning of a week of protests,” said Larry Holmes, a spokesman for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, the coalition of activist groups that staged the anti-war march.

Michael Moore due at reception
Among the rallies, parties and receptions planned for Monday was one featuring filmmaker Michael Moore, whose Bush-bashing documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” just passed the $100 million mark, the first documentary ever to top that milestone at the domestic box office.

In keeping with tradition, Bush is spending the next several days out of the public eye at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

But Republican strategists were in Boston, tucked away in a building near the FleetCenter, where they were answering Democratic criticisms and focusing on painting Kerry as a liberal.

“The one thing you won’t hear John Kerry talk about this week is the record that earned him the ranking of the Senate’s most out-of-the-mainstream member,” said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Bush’s re-election campaign.

Kerry watched the first night of the convention on television in his hotel room in Norfolk, Va. He will deliver his prime-time acceptance speech on Thursday, the convention’s final night.

Edwards, who was to arrive Tuesday in Boston, made a final campaign appearance Monday in North Carolina.

“We believe fundamentally ... tomorrow can be better than today,” Edwards said at a town hall meeting at Research Triangle Park, a 20-minute drive from his home in Raleigh.

He canceled a second campaign event scheduled for Greensboro to rest his frayed voice ahead of his acceptance speech.

NBC’s Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell, MSNBC-TV’s Felix Schein in Norfolk, Va., MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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