PHOTO: KERRY REHEARSES
Ron Edmonds  /  AP
Presidential nominee John Kerry rehearses his acceptance speech Thursday morning at Boston's FleetCenter, site of the Democratic National Convention.
msnbc.com
updated 8/1/2004 12:48:07 PM ET 2004-08-01T16:48:07

John Kerry lays claim to the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday night, delivering a pivotal acceptance speech that will provide him with a golden opportunity to introduce himself to Americans and convince them that he can protect them from terrorism and improve their lives.

A day after being formally nominated as party's candidate against President Bush in November and being lauded by running mate John Edwards as a born leader tested in Vietnam, Kerry was to lay out his qualifications for the presidency in a 50-minute-plus speech to delegates and a national television audience, due to begin shortly after 10 p.m. ET.

Aides said the 60-year-old senator from Massachusetts will aim to tell Americans who he is, what he seeks to do and why he should be president. He is said to be hoping to break through his New England reserve to reveal more of himself.

Others will lay some of the groundwork.

Senate colleagues and two of his presidential rivals will testify to his promise of an America that is stronger and more secure. Daughters Alexandra and Vanessa will talk about the father they know. Also scheduled to speak is Jim Rassmann, an Army Special Forces lieutenant whose life Kerry saved in Vietnam.

Biographical film will stress service, family
Delegates gathered in the FleetCenter, the convention site, also will see a short biographical film portraying Kerry as a decorated Vietnam War hero and devoted husband and father — not as the wealthy, 20-year Senate veteran with a patrician’s air some see him as.

The prime-time, televised address will give Kerry his biggest national audience until he takes on Bush in a debate in late September.

The Democratic Party made official what had been been apparent for months on Wednesday night, nominating Kerry as its candidate for president The outcome was scripted so Ohio, a key swing state, put him over the top at 11:37 p.m. Among those casting their states’ ballots was retired Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas, one of those vanquished opponents.

Video: 'Politics of hope' The voting was set up with a rousing call to action from Kerry’s running mate, Edwards , a one-term senator from North Carolina, who promised a positive, solutions-filled campaign and offered an extensive but short-on-details program for a Kerry-Edwards administration.

“Between now and November, you — the American people — you can reject the tired, old, hateful, negative, politics of the past,” Edwards said. “And instead, you can embrace the politics of hope, the politics of what’s possible, because this is America, where everything is possible.”

Edwards promised that Kerry would push through a tax break and reform the health care system to lower insurance premiums by as much as $1,000. To cover the rising costs of child care, he promised a tax credit up to $1,000, and he offered a tax break on up to $4,000 in college tuition, an unspecified rise in the minimum wage and a program to reform welfare. But he did not say how such a program would be sold to a Congress likely to remain in Republican hands.

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Liberals energize convention
Edwards’ middle-America message was in sharp contrast with that of the speakers earlier in the evening, who, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, energized the convention with impassioned calls to traditional liberal values that the party has muted in its determination to put Kerry in the White House.

Sharpton, Kucinich and the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s equally energetic addresses galvanized the delegates in the FleetCenter, but they were scheduled for early in the evening, long before the national television networks went on the air. Party leaders had instructed speakers to skip over controversial issues that Democrats traditionally support, such as abortion rights, gun control, gay rights and affirmative action.

But Sharpton and Kucinich would have none of it.

Sharpton renewed the left-of-center call for economic and racial justice that allowed him to rehabilitate his image outside his native New York as a fringe activist. “This is not about a party,” Sharpton told his party in a call to honor its progressive past. “It is about living up to the promise of America.”

Sharpton touched on a number of traditionally liberal themes in a speech that ran well over the six minutes he had been allotted by convention organizers. He rejected calls to make English the national language, saying, “No one gave [Latinos] an English test before they sent them to Iraq to fight for America.” He called for residents of the District of Columbia to be given statehood. He called for economic reparations to compensate black Americans for slavery.

Kucinich sounded similar themes. Determined to reward his 67 delegates by bringing the strongest liberal message to the convention, he unabashedly proclaimed the Democrats “the party of workers’ rights, civil rights and women’s rights” and argued that “when we show up holding the banner of social and economic justice, we win.”

Jackson: Send Bush home
While they all gave ringing endorsements of Kerry for president, it was Jackson who stuck closest to the program. Recalling “the darkness of 2000, [when] the winners lost and the losers won,” he returned to the scene of some of his most stirring political triumphs, the speaker’s podium at the Democratic convention, and made a rousing call to “send John Kerry and John Edwards to the White House this November.”

Jackson, himself a two-time candidate for president, promised that “a new day is dawning,” declaring: “Out of the darkness of the Bushes, we see the soaring of an authentic American eagle on the horizon. Hope cometh in the morning.”

Jackson also made one of the few concrete policy proposals to be issued during the convention, which has been closely stage-managed by Democratic leaders to highlight Kerry’s war record and foreign policy credentials.

Jackson called on Democrats to support a constitutional amendment to guarantee every child a high-quality education, complaining that “this president speaks of leaving no child behind but leaves 2 million children behind to protect the tax cut for the top 1 percent.”

Military salute to Kerry
The rest of the convention session Wednesday focused on Kerry’s background as a decorated Vietnam War veteran, which his advisers see as a key attribute and a counter to Republican efforts to paint him as a traditional liberal who is weak on defense.

Twelve retired generals and admirals endorsed Kerry, and a special video tribute featured officers talking about their support.

As he arrived Wednesday at Logan Airport, Kerry told reporters that he felt “great, ready to go, pumped,” and he promised that his acceptance speech Thursday would be a surprise.

Kerry then made a splashy entrance into the city with his Vietnam-era swiftboat crew mates. They hailed a water taxi for a cruise through Boston Harbor to Charlestown Navy Yard, where Kerry promised “no retreat, no surrender” in his battle with President Bush.

For Democrats, two fresh faces
Calling him “skilled, capable and experienced,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California formally placed Kerry’s name in nomination a little after 6 p.m. as the third night of the convention got under way.

Tuesday night, Democrats got their first detailed look at Kerry’s outspoken wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who portrayed her husband as a war hero who “earned his medals the old-fashioned way, by putting his life on the line.”

Heinz Kerry , widow of a Republican senator who inherited his family’s ketchup fortune, and the convention’s keynote speaker, Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, sought to put a positive, friendly face of diversity on a national campaign that has been marked by bitter divisions. Their addresses were in stark contrast with those of the Democrats’ liberal lions, Edward Kennedy and Howard Dean, who issued full-throated roars against Bush.

Heinz Kerry was one of two new faces being introduced Tuesday night to national Democrats. In his keynote address, Obama offered his own life as an example of uniquely American possibilities and promised that “a brighter day will come.”

“They sense, deep in their bones, that with just a change in priorities we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all,” said Obama, 42, a lawyer who was the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review.

MSNBC.com's Alex Johnson, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Kerry's big night

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