Margin of Error 

With their Boston convention now history, Democrats in Tennessee and elsewhere look ahead to another close presidential race.

Elisabeth Edwards and Teresa Kerry join their husbands on stage at convention's end.

It was the last night of the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, and people were squeezed in all over the FleetCenter, a smallish arena designed, it would seem, for basketball and modestly sized rock concerts -- not for conclaves of political junkies pouring in from the 50 states. One result of that fact, along with the heightened security consciousness of this post-9/11 era, was that credentials were harder to come by, and far fewer in variety, than at previous political conventions.

Delegates had to be taken care of, of course, as did reporters, who far outnumbered the delegates, despite the unlikelihood of any real news breaking in an affair that was both tightly scripted and monitored by party officials for rhetorical excess. (Read: direct attacks on President George W. Bush.) But some alternates had to be stashed away in the nosebleed seats. And anyone who was remotely unofficial had to work extra hard to hustle a pass.

In delegations like Tennessee's, party chairman Randy Button strained to provide credentials for home-state drop-ins, delegates' family members, and VIPs, as did such artful-dodger types as David Upton, John Freeman, and Jerry Fanion, whose foraging skills were developed as cadres of Memphis' Ford political organization.

On the outside of the chain-link fences sectioning off the heavily guarded entranceways to the arena, the credential-seekers could always be found, bearing their pitiful scalper-like signs ("Extra Credentials?" "I Need Tickets!") and hanging in there elbow-to-elbow with the frothing-at-the-mouth screechers who were hawking their support for (or opposition to) the war in Iraq, their support for (or opposition to) abortion, and their allegiance to various causes good and bad. Or to cranks like Lyndon Larouche -- whose adherents passed out two substantial-looking documents: one titled "A Real Democratic Platform for November 2004;" the other, "Children of Satan III: The Sexual Congress for Cultural Fascism." (Don't ask.)

Considering that uniformed law-enforcement officers from all over Massachusetts and various other states were massed at every strategic point, along with obvious plainclothes types and feds, and that SWAT teams with rifles patrolled the roofs, there was a serious disjunction between all this fear, loathing, and ceremony on the one hand and the rather tepid doings that actually went on inside the FleetCenter on the other.

Sharpshooters patrolled the rooftops overlooking approaches to the convention hall.

But anyhow, there was this overweight (and overwrought) bag-lady type who had somehow contrived to get into the arena, way up in the upper deck, and she commenced to fume and snort big-time as the students and yuppies and tourists and other upper-tier denizens passed back and forth in front of her, blocking her view of the platform below. She could, with some serious squinting and craning of the neck, actually see the backs of the heads of the speakers, who on this final night would include Delaware senator Joe Biden, General Wesley Clark, and, of course, the Big Kahuna himself, Massachusetts senator John Kerry, this year's Democratic presidential nominee.

"Sit down!" the woman kept yelling. "Either sit down or come up here and take my seat and I'll take yours! I've been trying to get to a convention since I was 10 years old."

By the looks of her, that would have been sometime in the middle of the last century, back when smoke-filled rooms still existed and conventions were real deliberative affairs, replete with surprise and contention and controversy. Such had long since ceased to be the case -- never more so than in Boston in 2004. The party's nomination had been sealed months ago by a series of primary victories by Kerry, who entered the convention in a neck-and-neck race with Bush, a fact that had somehow persuaded party officials to pursue a policy of caution, led by national Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe, who evidently feared rocking a boat that was somehow still in the water.

Hence, the president was almost never mentioned by name, and criticisms of the Bush incumbency and his policies were generally couched in euphemistic phrases. (See sidebar on following page for some of what was said from the floor.)

And what do the Democrats get for all that making nice? According to Adam Nagourney and Robin Tower, writing in The New York Times after the convention was over, Bush's campaign team "plans to use the normally sleepy month of August for a vigorous drive to undercut John Kerry" and will take advantage of the Republican convention that begins late this month to "feature Kerry as an object of humor and calculated derision."

Shades of 2002, when congressional Democrats' Bush-lite rhetoric and timid distinctions were no defense against the GOP's programmed and highly personal onslaughts. It was like WWF thespians trying to simulate wrestling moves against real-deal Roman gladiators, a self-inflicted mismatch that would cost poor Dick Gephardt of Missouri his chance of being Speaker (and make his forlorn race for the presidency something of a consolation prize) and would end up surrendering control of the Senate to the Republicans.

Max Cleland of Georgia, the Vietnam vet and triple amputee who lost his Senate seat to Republican Saxby Chambliss in 2002 after a barrage of last-minute mailouts and TV ads questioned, of all things, his patriotism, said in Memphis last month that he didn't blame Chambliss for those tactics. Instead, he blamed Tennessee's own Bill Frist, Senate majority leader, whom he held responsible for funneling $700,000 into the 11th-hour media campaign against him.

Ironically, Cleland, who for Tennessee Democrats has been somewhat ubiquitous this year, turning up at party dinners all over the state, would have a pivotal role too at the Boston convention. The former senator's introduction of Kerry to the crowd in the arena and to the national viewing audience provided one more tie to the bona fide military experience possessed by former naval lieutenant Kerry, a Vietnam veteran and owner of medals for valor and three Purple Hearts.

Kerry's opening sentence, "My name is John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty," was a neat reminder of the mysteries that still remain about former Lieutenant George Bush's service -- or the lack of it -- at an Alabama Air National Guard base in 1972.

And Kerry, who surrounded himself on stage with his swift-boat Vietnam buddies, as he had during the climactic phase of his surprise Iowa primary win in January, was clearly hoping to reprise the aura of that victory. Departing somewhat from the caution of the week, he even suggested that President Bush might have consciously misled the nation into an unnecessary war.

One of the second-tier talking heads on the GOP-leaning Fox News Network hastily weighed in Thursday night with some predictably skeptical (and partially accurate) criticism of Kerry's acceptance-speech delivery as having been "rushed," but what that meant in effect was that applause gathered so quickly and deafeningly as to drown out a number of his lines. The fact is, Kerry did what so many prognosticators said he had to do -- make what was arguably the best speech of his life. In the arena itself, where distant perspectives rendered him lanky and Lincoln-like and the overhead JumboTron magnified his presence, he was smooth, authoritative, and disarmingly cocky -- not the Droopy-the-dog face of home-screen close-ups. "Presidential" was the term of choice

And yet the polls would not show the usual post-convention bounce. Even Michael Dukakis, the previous Democratic nominee from Massachusetts, who got tagged with the "L" word and Willie Horton in 1988 and lost all but a handful of states to George H.W. Bush, the same Michael Dukakis who has gotten minimal recognition from Democratic conventions since, even this year in his home town of Boston, yes, that Michael Dukakis, whose acceptance speech was a relatively drab affair focused on the uninspiring notion of "competence," got a post-convention bounce, a full 18 percent's worth!

By contrast, all of the major polls this time around would show Kerry's position more or less unchanged vis-Ö-vis George W. Bush, either a few points ahead or a few points behind, with the usual margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 percent. One post-convention sampling, taken by USA Today/CNN/Gallup, even showed Kerry dropping further behind.

This didn't necessarily spell disaster for Kerry and the Democrats. After all, Bush's Republicans, who had the chutzpah this year to schedule their own convention in New York City within a few days of the 9/11 anniversary, could come a cropper in that staunchly Democratic haven. And there are always the debates, in which a superbly prepared and confident Kerry might eviscerate some bumbling cartoon version of Bush straight out of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Right, the debates -- the same debates in which Tennessee's own Al Gore, a well-schooled vice president of incontestable smarts, managed to come off as three different kinds of goofy in as many debates against Bush, then an underdog challenger, in 2000.

Tennessee casts its votes for -- guess who? -- John Kerry.

Gore would get his props in the 2004 convention, first as one of the opening night's speaking triumvirate of Gore/Carter/Clinton (a quadrumvirate, if you count New York senator Hillary Clinton, who gave a longish speech in introducing her husband). The former vice president was well received, even though (or perhaps because), like the others on Monday night, he took some of the edge off his criticism of the president, which, for Gore had been unusually heated for most of the current election year. The circuitous phrases he served the convention delegates were, by comparison, so much antipasto.

On the morning after his convention speech, Gore was the principal speaker at the Tennessee delegation's morning breakfast at the Cambridge Marriott. He was properly eloquent and exhortatory, and he and wife Tipper even gave a brief reenactment of the famous kiss with which the couple graced Gore's acceptance-speech platform in Los Angeles in 2000. Lots of embraces and handshakes all around. Soon enough, they were gone, however -- not to be seen again among their fellow Tennesseans for the duration of the convention. It was very much like the way Gore materialized in his home state during the years of his vice presidency -- more motorcade than moment.

Other Tennesseans had their 15 minutes' worth with the delegation, with the convention at large, or with both.

One shining light was 8th District congressman John Tanner, who made a brief speech from the convention podium and addressed the delegation at a Tuesday breakfast on what he acknowledged were potentially wonkish aspects of diplomacy, stem-cell research, and national finance. A bonus to the delegation was Tanner's take on the encounter with filmmaker Moore memorialized in Fahrenheit 9/11. As the drawling West Tennessee congressman told his fellow Tennesseans, he didn't have a clue who Moore was when he was approached, didn't notice the cameras, and meant to politely brush the disheveled-looking interloper off with an "I'll-get-back-to-you" response.

Then there was Jim Sasser, the former senator and ambassador to China, who ventured a serious and systematic critique of the war in Iraq to the Tennessee delegates on the convention's final morning -- a speech that exceeded in gravity and specificity anything said from the podium. And about U.S. Representative Harold Ford of Memphis, need you ask? Though he was assigned a podium time of 4 p.m. EST on Wednesday (an unseemly fate for a national co-chair of the Kerry campaign) and though much attention of the sort he is used to was showered on Illinois senatorial candidate Barack Obama, another youngish African-American star and this year's keynoter, Ford held his own media-wise, and he made what was, in effect, the welcoming speech to the Tennessee delegation Monday morning. (See Politics, page 10, for more on this and other news involving conventioneers from Tennessee.)

As is well known, Gore's loss of home-state Tennessee in effect deprived him and the Democrats of the presidency in 2000. Ever since, it has been assumed in some quarters that Tennessee, which for most of the last decade was dominated by the GOP at every governmental level except the state legislature, was an ipso facto Republican state.

Not so, said Governor Phil Bredesen, one of two Democrats (the other is U.S. Representative Lincoln Davis) to succeed a Republican office-holder in state voting in recent years. Setting out to "dispel a couple of myths" during a luncheon address to his fellow Tennesseans at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum last Thursday, Bredesen said, "The first myth is that Tennessee is really not a battleground state. I think this week has really helped to put some of that to rest."

Noting that President Bush has been to Tennessee "five times" this year, the governor said, "I'd like to think that has to do with the wonderful work of our tourism department, but I suspect there are other reasons. And I think nothing speaks so eloquently to the fact that this is a state that is and can be in play if we play our cards right. We really are a two-party state, and I think it behooves us to remember that."

Two other "myths" were that vice-presidential choices don't really matter (Bredesen insisted that North Carolina senator John Edwards, Kerry's vice-presidential running mate, "will make a difference") and that "people are voting against George Bush and not for John Kerry." He said he thought Kerry was "beginning to define himself to the public" and would do so successfully in Tennessee.

All that might be considered wishful thinking, except that similar sentiments had been expressed only the day before at another delegation lunch at Boston's Harvard Club by Paul Rivera, who was billed as a senior political adviser to the Kerry campaign.

Rivera not only put Tennessee on the A-list in his remarks, he amplified on breaking news that Tennessee Democrats had already heard: that Edwards would be traveling the state in the next 10 days. "We think Tennessee can be won," said Rivera, all too mindful, like his listeners, of Gore's loss of the state in 2000 and the attendant consequences. The difference this year, one that Edwards' presence on the ticket might amplify, was, in effect, that some of Bush's voters of four years ago are now suffering a case of buyer's remorse.

How much in the way of resources, then, will the campaign put into the state? That's the rub. Rivera wasn't sure. The apportionment hasn't happened yet, and at least one knowledgeable political observer is skeptical. Former U.S. representative Bob Clement of Nashville remembers being promised considerably more by the national Democratic campaign committee in 2002 than he ended up getting for his losing U.S. Senate race against Republican Lamar Alexander.

"Tennessee's not a priority state yet, and it won't be until they turn loose enough money to do it right," insisted Clement after listening to Rivera. How much is enough? The ex-congressman, a political spectator this year at the convention and elsewhere, thought a figure in the neighborhood of $3 million would be about right.

Then there's the considered opinion of former Governor Ned Ray McWherter, who reflected on Gore's experience in the state four years ago. "They had Al beat the morning the polls opened," said McWherter, noting that Tennessee Republicans had borne down heavily on the gun issue and worked hard on their early voting effort.

Informed by Memphis lawyer David Cocke that the Kerry-Edwards ticket stood a good chance of winning Shelby County by 50,000 votes or so, McWherter delivered the rest of the formula for success in Tennessee in 2004.

"They need to spend a million dollars on TV, work the country music stations, country radio, get out the early voting, and get after the swing vote late. Go after the voters where Levi Strauss and all those other shutdown plants are," he said. "That'll do it."

McWherter is 78 now, and, though he still looks stout, the two-term former governor allowed as how last week's Democratic convention in Boston would probably be his last. The first was the riotous affair in Chicago in 1968, when feeling against the Vietnam War was at its peak and demonstrators and police battled daily in the streets. "I got there the first day and was staying at the Blackstone Hotel and I heard all that racket down there. I turned around the next day and took the train and went home." Hubert Humphrey was the nominee that year, the first in a series of notable losers.

"Who was next?" the former governor tried to recall.

"That was McGovern," prompted Cocke.

"That was disaster!" responded McWherter.

The rest of that history goes this way: After Jimmy Carter's narrow win in 1976, the party returned to hard luck, through Carter's second try and failed runs by Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, before Bill Clinton's breakthrough victories in 1992 and 1996. Then a reversion to type with the Gore loss four years ago.

Will this year be different for the Democrats? It remains to be seen, both for the state and for the nation. But as the polls and the pols and the pundits all seem to be saying after the first major-party convention of 2004, there is precious little margin for error.


Former vice president Al Gore greets Memphian Fred Johnson

The ubiquitous Jesse Jackson works the crowd.

Former governor Ned McWherter and state Senator Steve Cohen swap war stories.

They Said It:
Quotes from the Democratic National Convention

Former Vice President Al Gore: "I didn't come here tonight to talk about the past. After all, I don't want you to think I lie awake at night counting and recounting sheep. ... Let's make sure that this time every vote is counted. Let's make sure not only that the Supreme Court does not pick the next president, but also that this president is not the one who picks the next Supreme Court."

Former President Jimmy Carter: "What a difference these few months of extremism have made! 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."

Former President Bill Clinton: "[The Republicans] believe the role of government is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who embrace their economic, political, and social views, leaving ordinary citizens to fend for themselves on important matters like health-care and retirement security. Now, since most Americans aren't that far to the right, our friends have to portray us Democrats as simply unacceptable, lacking in strength and values. In other words, they need a divided America. But we don't."

Keynoter Barack Obama: "The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States: Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States."

Senator Ted Kennedy: "We hear echoes of past battles in the quiet whisper of the sweetheart deal, in the hushed promise of a better break for the better connected. We hear them in the cries of the false patriots who bully dissenters into silence and submission."

Al Sharpton: "Mr. President, in all due respect, Mr. President, read my lips: Our vote is not for sale."

Presidential nominee John Kerry: "I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war. I will have a vice president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a secretary of defense who will listen to the best advice of our military leaders. And I will appoint an attorney general who actually upholds the Constitution of the United States. ... 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. ... [O]n my first day in office, I will send a message to every man and woman in our armed forces: You will never be asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace. ... America can do better. Help is on the way!"

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