‘We can do better’

BOSTON – Sen. John Kerry challenged President Bush’s Iraq policy in blunt, biting terms Thursday night and promised cheering Democratic National Convention delegates, “I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war.”

“America can do better, and help is on the way,” the Demo-cratic presidential nominee vowed over and over in a prime-time acceptance speech that marked the beginning of the general election phase of his long quest for the White House.

“Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn’t make it so,” said the four-term Massachusetts senator, a decorated Vietnam War veteran.

“Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn’t make it so. And proclaiming mission accomplished certainly doesn’t make it so,” Kerry told thousands of delegates packed into the overheated, overcrowded FleetCenter, as well as a nationwide television audience of millions.

The hall erupted in cheers as Kerry completed his speech with an optimistic, Reaganesque prediction that “our best days are still to come.” The ovation grew louder when running mate John Edwards joined Kerry on the podium, followed by their wives and children.

It was a boisterous, jubilant send-off for the Democratic contenders, who depart their convention city today for a 3,500-mile, coast-to-coast campaign swing through 21 states.

After spending the week at his Texas ranch, Bush also will resume campaigning this weekend, with a bus tour of battleground states and a new message: “We have turned the corner, and we are not turning back.”

Kerry made a triumphant entrance into the Democrats’ convention hall for the most important speech of his political life, walking a happy gantlet of delegates who reached out to greet him. “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty,” he said moments later from the podium – and snapped a salute.

In a speech salted with frequent references to patriotism and service, Kerry said the American flag doesn’t “belong to any president. It doesn’t belong to any ideology, and it doesn’t belong to any political party. It belongs to all the American people.”

The Democratic challenger’s speech capped a four-day convention designed to persuade millions of undecided voters that he is a man tested by war and ready to assume command.

On the last evening, nothing was left to chance – from a new campaign video designed to show Kerry’s softer side to a brief tribute from fellow Vietnam veteran Jim Rassmann.

“John Kerry saved my life,” he said simply.

The video provided the first reference from the convention podium to Kerry’s emergence as a prominent anti-war activist more than three decades ago after he returned home from Vietnam.

But Republicans said the evening program omitted one detail in Kerry’s resume – his election as lieutenant governor under Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a liberal who blew a huge lead in the 1988 presidential race and wound up losing to Bush’s father.

Kerry began the week tied or slightly ahead of Bush in the polls, a strong position for a challenger. Whatever surge in support he receives from four days of his convention, Republicans hope to counter next month when they meet in New York to nominate Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for re-election.

In his speech, Kerry painted a portrait of a nation suffering economically after four years of Republican rule.

“Wages are falling, health care 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,” he said.

“We can do better and we will. We’re the optimists,” he said, and added, “We value an America where the middle class is not being squeezed, but doing better.”

Kerry’s decision to question the president over Iraq comes at a time when Bush is struggling to reverse a decline in support for his policies in a conflict that has claimed more than 900 lives, many of them since the president stood on the Everett-based aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln beneath a banner that proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.”

A Pew Research Center survey earlier this month showed 42 percent support for Bush on the war, down from 59 percent six months earlier.

But Kerry expanded his criticism beyond Iraq as he sought to draw a contrast with the president on the national security issues he has placed at the core of his challenge for the White House. Kerry vowed to reverse policies that send U.S. jobs overseas and promised to expand health care, improve education and “fight a smarter, more effective war” against terror.

“In these dangerous days, there is a right way and a wrong way to be strong,” he said.

“Strength is more than tough words,” Kerry added in a slap at Bush without mentioning him by name.

“I will immediately reform the intelligence system so policy is guided by facts, and facts are never distorted by politics,” he said in reference to claims that the president relied on faulty intelligence in deciding to invade Iraq in 2003.

“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,” Kerry said.

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