The Democrats have come to town to prick rhetorical balloons at the Republican National Convention.

The party set up its counter-convention headquarters, also known as a rapid-response operation or war room, a half dozen blocks from Madison Square Garden on Friday, and wasted no time registering its dissent from the GOP's proceedings.

Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe (search) criticized President Bush on every front — rising health care costs, a rush to war, 1.8 million private sector job losses, and more — in introducing his team's slogan for the GOP convention, "Mission Not Accomplished." A bold new billboard at Times Square carried the same message.

"I like to use a sledgehammer when a scalpel will do," McAuliffe said cheerfully.

About 50 Democratic staff members plus volunteers will man the center during the convention, trying to make sure that no assertion or hurrah by Republicans will go unanswered. Republicans ran a similar operation outside the Democratic convention in Boston.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack will lead the Democrats' rapid-response effort, which includes daily briefings and events throughout the city. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer, and Rep. Charles Rangel, all from New York, also will be pitching in.

McAuliffe said he wanted the GOP to give him a pass so he can roam the floor at the convention. "I'm hoping and waiting for my invitation," he said. "I'm not holding my breath."

He did, however, expect to be given access to the convention hall, so he can be interviewed by the many radio talk-show hosts who will be set up inside. He extended that courtesy to Republicans in Boston.

McAuliffe has decided even before the convention's start on Monday that it will be a "four-day masquerade ball" with the Republican right pushing moderates out on the stage to make the party look more mainstream than it is.

Democrats set up their headquarters in a building housing trade-union offices and an organic market crammed with products such as "Daily Detox," joint-strengthening supplements and "Colon Cleanse."