BOSTON Reminding Americans he has been tested in combat, John Kerry last week sought to ease doubts about whether he's tough enough to be commander in chief. He also tried to exploit President Bush's troubles with Iraq, a growing liability for the White House.
Four years ago Bush campaigned on a promise to restore ''honor and dignity'' to the Oval Office. In a turn on that theme, Kerry pledged to return ''trust and credibility'' to the White House.
''I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war,'' Kerry declared, criticizing the president for asserting Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that have not been found.
In the most important speech of his long presidential campaign, Kerry decided to confront Bush head-on about Iraq, an issue the White House once had thought would win re-election for the president but instead has turned into a vulnerability.
Kerry's speech, while laced with uplifting themes, broke with three days of toned-down criticism of Bush.
''It strikes me as tough,'' said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. ''Frankly, not only does the convention want to hear it, but bottom line is, if Bush is to be defeated it's because of a judgment on his performance and it looks to me as if Kerry is going after him on all counts.''
On edge about terrorism, voters trust Bush over Kerry by a wide margin to keep the country safe. But Americans also are pessimistic about Iraq, where more than 900 U.S. soldiers have died and Bush's justification for the invasion has been undercut by investigations in Congress and the Sept. 11 commission.
''Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn't make it so,'' Kerry said. ''And proclaiming 'Mission Accomplished' certainly doesn't make it so.''
In a key passage of his speech, Kerry said, according to excerpts released in advance:
''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. 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 go to war because we have to.''
''I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president. Let there be no mistake: I will never hesitate to use force when it is required.''
United and determined to send Bush packing, Democratic delegates gave Kerry everything he could have wanted at the convention. Urged to stay focused and positive, they took the sting out of their barbs about Bush and bit their tongues on hot-button issues like gun control, abortion, affirmative action and gay rights.
Less than 100 days before the election, Kerry is in stronger shape than any presidential challenger in a quarter-century, in a virtual tie with Bush and likely to get a boost from last week's Democratic convention..
It will be a campaign awash in money. Pro-Democratic outside groups are ready to pour tens of millions of dollars into the drive to defeat Bush. One group alone, Americans Coming Together, promises to spend $1 million a day.
Bush has plenty of cash, too $64 million at the beginning of July. He can continuing raising and spending money for another month until his convention while Kerry, upon accepting his party's nomination, is limited to $75 million in taxpayer-financed funds to spend until the election.
By a host of measures, Americans are unhappy with Bush. Only about four in 10 support Bush's handling of Iraq and his economic policies. While the economy is growing strong, there has been a net loss of more than 1 million jobs under Bush.
''We can do better and we will,'' Kerry promised. ''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.''
Despite the convention's high spirits, though, Democrats are worried. They are unsure whether Kerry can beat the notion reinforced by nearly $100 million in Republican ads that he's an indecisive liberal, that he would weaken national security.
Bush's campaign strategist Matthew Dowd says Kerry has failed to sell himself. ''They've spent over $100 million. No challenger has spent that kind of money to introduce himself to the public and still be in such a weak position,'' Dowd said, acknowledging that Bush's own approval rating hovers at 50 percent or less.
The electorate is divided and polarized and a lot of voters already have made up their minds, narrowing opportunities for both candidates. About 20 states are up for grabs. ''You're talking about impacting less than 10 percent,'' Dowd said.
As Democrats headed home Friday, Bush made a beeline for battleground states on a two-day trip to Missouri, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Aides say he will keep up a brisk campaign schedule leading into the Republican convention in New York beginning Aug. 30.
Terence Hunt has covered the White House for The Associated Press since the Reagan presidency.
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