BOSTON – Wearing a stovepipe hat with a gay-pride rainbow, graphic artist Gregg Gallo peers up from his seat in the Washington delegation as speaker after speaker calls John Kerry (search) a terrorism-fighting, medal-winning patriot. Nobody, it seems, is talking about gay rights and other hot-button issues.
"Issues are fine. Winning is great," said Gallo of Shorline, Wash., a gay delegate expressing the view shared by convention planners, party activists and even powerful Democratic special interest groups.
Abortion rights, gay rights, affirmative action (search), gun control — these and more traditional liberal convention themes were shoved to the margins as the Kerry team relentlessly focused its convention on the candidates' Vietnam War record.
"The special interests that favor Democrats understand that they will be vastly better off under a Kerry administration than they have been under Bush," said Matt Bennett, spokesman for Americans for Gun Safety, which supports gun control.
"They also understand the way to get Kerry elected is to focus on the issue that is most important to voters — that is security both at home and abroad," Bennett said.
Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt said Democrats are trying to keep Kerry's liberal ways from the general public. "We've said from the first hour of the convention that this will be an extreme makeover of John Kerry's 20-year record in the U.S. Senate," he said.
It wasn't his record or his party's liberal causes that Kerry wanted voters to remember from his acceptance address Thursday night. His message was simple: I'll fight for you at home and if necessary abroad.
"I defended this country as a young man, and I will defend it as president," the Massachusetts senator said in excerpts of his prepared address.
Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, said of her husband on Tuesday night, "No one will defend this nation more vigorously than he will — and he will always be the first in the line of fire."
Kerry aides said her words were meant to assure swing-voting suburban women, many of whom turned to Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks but now are growing uneasy about Bush's leadership in Iraq.
With that dynamic in mind, the former Navy swiftboat captain arrived at his convention city on Wednesday by water with ex-crewmates in tow.
"No retreat!" Kerry growled. "No surrender!"
Inside the convention hall, special interest groups surrendered their prominence and retreated from center stage. Their voices were heard, but mostly by the already converted.
Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, spoke prior to the prime-time Wednesday night schedule to defend "marriage equality," or the right of gays to marry. Her spokesman, Mark Shields, said it makes sense to focus the convention on security, not gay rights and other liberal touchstones.
"If you look at every national poll, gay rights is not something people want politicians spending their time on. They want them spending their time on jobs, the economy and the war in Iraq," he said.
Gay rights did get some prime exposure when keynote speaker Barack Obama said people in Republican states have "gay friends," and Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts accused GOP leaders of pitting "straights against gays."
But those were passing glances, safely deployed to cast Bush and his allies as intolerant.
Abortion rights was rarely mentioned by big-time speakers, and then only in code; Al Gore asked voters to back Kerry to make sure "this president is not the one who picks the next Supreme Court."
"The only thing the pro-choice movement cares about is who lives in the White House next January," said David Seldin, spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America.
The same might be said for the NAACP, led by Kweisi Mfume. "Most delegates recognize the larger picture, and the larger picture is the party is finding a way against all odds to win," Mfume said.
That anything-to-beat-Bush attitude is what helped Kerry win the primary fight, when exit polls showed voters backing the Vietnam veteran mainly because they thought he had the best shot at defeating the GOP incumbent.
Albert Waganfeald, an Ohio delegate, raised a rare voice of dissent, saying the convention script was heavy on political expediency.
"I wish we would put our cards on the table and talk about affirmative action and our other issues," he said. "I guess they fear that Kerry can't win with them."