John Kerry Reports For Duty

Nominee's speech focuses on security and his credentials.

BOSTON — Amid cheers and positive vibes, Democrats gave John Kerry a grand send-off Thursday as the Massachusetts senator officially accepted the title of presidential nominee.

With Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender" blasting over the Fleet Center public address system, Kerry made his way through the crowd to the podium shortly after 10 p.m. EST.

Raising his hand in salute, he declared, "I'm John Kerry — and I'm reporting for duty."

In a 45-minute address, he went on to highlight his personal experiences as a Navy officer in Vietnam, along with his plans to maintain a strong military, increase access to health care and cut taxes on the middle class. And Kerry directly challenged his opponent to keep things on the up-and-up this fall.

"I want to address these next words directly to President George W. Bush: In the weeks ahead, let's be optimists, not just opponents," Kerry said. "Let's build unity in the American family, not angry division."

Democrats traditionally win presidential races by focusing on economic issues. But on Thursday, Kerry devoted much of his address to national security as he sought to reassure voters with his own experiences.

"I know what kids go through when they are carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place where they can't tell friend from foe," said Kerry. "I know what they go through when they're out on patrol at night and they don't know what's coming around the bend. I know what it's like to write letters home telling your family that everything's all right when you're just not sure that's true."

As he has in the past, the Democratic nominee pledged to rebuild bridges with U.S. allies and to better consult them in U.S. foreign policy.

Turning to domestic issues, Kerry promised incentives to reinvigorate the manufacturing sector, which was hit particularly hard in recent decades. He also pledged to close tax loopholes that he said encourage the off-shoring of U.S. jobs.

On the subject of health care, Kerry offered a general plan to extend coverage to the estimated 35 million Americans who don't have any.

Finally, the Democratic nominee pledged to eliminate the tax breaks President Bush put in place — but only for those who make more than $200,000. All others would get a tax cut, he said.

Kerry also suggested a possible new bogeyman for the Democrats this fall as he discussed America's dependence on overseas oil. "I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation — not the Saudi royal family," he said to sustained applause.

For one of the few times since launching his campaign, Kerry touched on religion in public life and shed light on why he has shied from the subject in the past.

"I don't wear my religion on my sleeve," he said. "But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday. I don't want to claim that God is on our side — as Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side."

Kerry delivered his address to a steamy, packed hall of Democratic delegates who appeared ready to exit the convention even more unified and energized than when they had arrived.

The convention's speeches were largely "on message" and the event consistently ran on schedule. The only snag came just after Kerry completed his acceptance speech. A thick fog of confetti filled the air but the planned downpour of 100,000 balloons was more like a drizzle.

A voice belonging to a Kerry staffer was heard on CNN giving orders via walkie-talkie to release the balloon deluge.

"Go balloons," the staffer said. A few moments later, he added, "We need all the balloons." Then, more anxiously, "Why the hell aren't the balloons coming down? What the f--- are you guys doing up there?" A few minutes later, CNN host Wolf Blitzer apologized to viewers for the miscue and for airing the foul language.

But apart from the balloon snafu, the final night of the party's convention came off almost exactly as organizers had hoped.

Earlier, delegates viewed a nine-and-a-half-minute film produced by Steven Spielberg that mixed black-and-white photos with grainy footage of Kerry aboard his Swift attack boat in Vietnam.

Kerry's speech was preceded by an introduction from former Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, a Vietnam veteran who remains confined to a wheelchair as a result of the injuries he suffered there. Cleland spoke of how, after returning from Vietnam, he empathized with Kerry's activism against the war.

"The Bible tells me that no greater love has a man than to lay down his life for his friends," said Cleland. "John Kerry's fellow crewmates — the men I am honored to share the stage with — are living testimony to his leadership, his courage under fire, and his willingness to risk his life for his fellow Americans. There is no greater act of patriotism than that."

Earlier, retired general Wesley Clark, who finished third in last spring's presidential primaries, sounded many of the same themes. He hailed Kerry for his service to country and took aim at Republicans who have accused Democrats of being soft on terrorism.

"This soldier has news for you: Anyone who tells you that one political party has a monopoly on the best defense of our nation is committing a fraud on the American people," said Clark

Then Clark threw what was comparatively one of the sharpest elbows of the four-day convention, quoting Franklin Roosevelt to criticize the Bush campaign's multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to discredit Kerry. "Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth," he said.