BOSTON, July 29 (UPI) -- In a hall decked out in red, white and blue, where 5,000 Democratic delegates were absorbing the images and memories of a Vietnam War their party had once opposed, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts Thursday accepted their nomination for the presidency.
He was introduced by Vietnam veterans, by crew members of the Swift boat on the Mekong River where he won his medals and by a film of that older, still controversial war, even as U.S. troops are fighting and dying in another conflict half a world away.
"This is the most important election of our lifetime," Kerry told the Democratic National Convention in his speech accepting their nomination for the presidency.
"The stakes are high. We are a nation at war -- a global war on terror against an enemy unlike any we have ever known before. And here at home, wages are falling, healthcare costs are rising, and our great middle class is shrinking. People are working weekends; they're working two jobs, three jobs, and they're still not getting ahead."
The stakes were also high for Kerry's speech. It was his opportunity to command the national stage, to introduce himself to an American public that has so far paid only modest attention to the election preliminaries. It was, all pundits agreed, the moment for Kerry to tell the nation what he was for, rather than to condemn yet again and explain yet again why he opposes the Bush administration.
"We can do better and we will. We're the optimists," he said, a naturally lugubrious man steeling himself to offer the bright cheerfulness about the future that American voters are said to crave.
His 46-minute speech was constantly interrupted by applause and standing ovations that testified to the high morale of a party that had united this week in the determination to replace President Bush in the White House.
Solemn when he spoke of the war and terrorist threats and of the state of U.S. alliances, he became determinedly cheerful when he promised to restore prosperity.
"For us, this is a country of the future. We're the can-do people," Kerry said. "And let's not forget what we did in the 1990s. We balanced the budget. We paid down the debt. We created 23 million new jobs. We lifted millions out of poverty, and we lifted the standard of living for the middle class. We just need to believe in ourselves -- and we can do it again."
Kerry delivered a powerful and precisely aimed speech, rather than the magnificent and emotive address that some had expected. He took on squarely the themes that were meant to be Bush's political advantages: strength, security and values. And without leveling the charge, Kerry made it clear that he believed that Bush had misled the public on the war (although it was left to retired Gen. Wesley Clark, in a strongly supportive speech, to charge that the Bush team had "committed a fraud on the American people").
"As president, I will ask hard questions and demand hard evidence. I will immediately reform the intelligence system -- so policy is guided by facts, and facts are never distorted by politics," Kerry said. "And as president, I will bring back this nation's time-honored tradition: the United States of America never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to.
"I defended this country as a young man, and I will defend it as president," Kerry pledged. "Let there be no mistake: I will never hesitate to use force when it is required. Any attack will be met with a swift and certain response. I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security. And I will build a stronger American military."
Kerry's message was simple: that the Bush administration's image of strength and resolve was flawed and dangerous, and it undermines American security rather than preserves it.
"In these dangerous days there is a right way and a wrong way to be strong," Kerry said. "Strength is more than tough words. After decades of experience in national security, I know the reach of our power and I know the power of our ideals. We need to make America once again a beacon in the world. We need to be looked up to and not just feared.
"And then, with confidence and determination, we will be able to tell the terrorists: You will lose and we will win," he concluded. "The future doesn't belong to fear; it belongs to freedom."
Kerry also confronted directly the Republican claim to be the party of American values.
"My fellow citizens, elections are about choices. And choices are about values," Kerry said. "In the end, it's not just policies and programs that matter; the president who sits at that desk must be guided by principle.
"For four years, we've heard a lot of talk about values. But values spoken without actions taken are just slogans. Values are not just words. They're what we live by. They're about the causes we champion and the people we fight for. And it is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families."
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