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Inside Politics

At stake Thursday: Crunch time for Kerry

Toughness, decisiveness, clarity all key
John Kerry greets supporters Wednesday in Boston.
Watch Carlos Watson on CNN during the DNC. He is scheduled to appear Monday through Thursday during the 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m. and 8-11 p.m. ET programs.
CNN's Carlos Watson reviews Day 3 of the DNC, sets the agenda for the final day.
Day Four: Thursday

• Theme: "Stronger at Home, Respected in the World"

• 4 p.m. ET: Session opens

• 7-9:45 p.m. ET: Speakers include Madeleine Albright, Joe Biden, Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman, Nancy Pelosi and Carole King performing "You've Got a Friend"

• 9:45 p.m. ET: Family members of John Kerry speak -- Vanessa and Alexandra Kerry, Chris and Andre Heinz

• 10 p.m. ET: Veterans of Kerry's crew in Vietnam speak, followed by Sen. Max Cleland's introduction of Kerry

• 10:30 p.m. ET: John Kerry delivers his address in acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination
America Votes 2004
John F. Kerry

BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- He's gotten as good a setup as he could ask for. But now, on the last night of the Democratic convention, it's time for Sen. John Kerry to stand up and prove that he is likable, forthright and, above all, tough enough.

The four-term senator finally has the stage to himself -- and the power to make or break the convention. Viewers will want to see if he lives up to the convention hype, because no matter how much your sister talks up your blind date, in the end he better be a good looker and kisser.

Kerry needs to tell his story not only verbally, but visually. To do that, he will surround himself with fellow veterans. And he has to look good, relaxed and confident onstage, because people will not only pay attention to what he says, but how he says it.

But ultimately, it's the speech itself that matters most.

Can Kerry offer a compelling theme and a clear agenda, all in language non-political junkies can understand? Will there be a message that's easy to say and even easier to comprehend, that can run on headlines nationwide Friday morning and stick in voters' minds thereafter?

Kerry has to give very specific, credible ideas to persuade swing voters. Polling experts that I talked to Wednesday noted that many undecideds actually like both Bush and Kerry. Unlike partisans on both sides, they don't have a visceral dislike for either candidate. But they are looking for a true vision and practical policy initiatives going forward.

The economy continues to come up as one of the most important issues, as well as Iraq and the fight against terrorism -- which may be one and the same, depending on who you ask. Health care is obviously a big issue, and recently "values" has crept up in some minds.

Kerry will need to touch on all these issues in plain detail, not just in broad strokes. That need is driven, in large part, by Republicans' sweeping and generally effective attacks on him as an indecisive flip-flopper.

That's why I'll bet you will hear Kerry stress the idea of "judgment." He may broaden the foreign policy debate, for instance, by saying America's difficulties in Iraq and its general loss of credibility overseas reflect repeated bad judgments by Bush.

The next president is going to have bumps in the road, no matter what. But Kerry will stress that it's imperative that a leader be both strong and wise.

All along, he will need to be careful when attacking the Bush administration, because he can't spend too much time on it and he can't be too harsh. He'd be well served by injecting some humor into the speech, so that he doesn't come across as overbearing.

Yet while "likability" is important -- and you could argue it helped Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan win presidential elections -- it's been eclipsed in the post-9/11 era by "toughness." Some voters might think, "I may not like this guy personally, but I think he can kick butt and get the job done."

So Kerry has to tackle one of the underlying concerns about Democrats in the public eye: Are they willing to be harsh -- ruthless if necessary -- to keep America safe, or are they too concerned about what other nations think?

This is the whole ball of wax for Kerry. To a large extent, it doesn't matter how persuasive Clinton might have been on Monday, or how eloquent senatorial candidate Barack Obama came off Tuesday, or even how strong a performance John Edwards, Kerry's vice presidential pick, turned in Wednesday.

Everything rides on the presidential nominee. In addition to the first presidential debate, this is Kerry's best chance to secure a double-digit lead over President Bush.

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