By Ron Fournier
The Associated Press
BOSTON - Former President Clinton, in a rare moment of self-criticism, said on Monday night that he, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney avoided the Vietnam War while John Kerry said, "Send me."
Casting the Massachusetts senator as a patriot in war and in Congress, a decorated veteran ready to be a wartime president, Clinton said on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, "Their opponents will tell you to be afraid of John Kerry and John Edwards, because they won't stand up to the terrorists. Don't you believe it."
With polls showing Bush holding a wide lead over Kerry on the question of fighting terrorism, Clinton sought to assure voters that the nominee-in-waiting's first priority would be keeping America safe. "Remember the scripture," he said, "Be not afraid."
The 24-minute address jolted the Democratic faithful from their seats, drawing hoots of approval and thunderous applause. "Sold!" shouted one man. "He got me."
Kerry advisers say they believe Bush's best chance at winning re-election is convincing voters that the Democratic ticket would be soft on terrorism. Polls show the race tight, with Kerry favored by voters on domestic issues and the public split on who would do the best job in the war on Iraq. Bush is viewed as a strong leader.
Clinton left office tainted by impeachment and last-minute pardons, but polls show his approval rating is higher than that of either Kerry or Bush. Kerry strategists say they consider him a living symbol of better economic times, the strongest voice for the Democratic Party.
Clinton criticized Bush's economic policies, and accused Republicans of polarizing the electorate for political advantage.
"They need a divided America but we don't," the former president said of the Republicans who have held power for four years. Then, he got personal.
"During the Vietnam War, many young men including the current president, the vice president and me could have gone to Vietnam but didn't," Clinton told the crowd. "John Kerry came from a privileged background. He could have avoided going, too. But, instead, he said, Send me.'"
He said Kerry was there for the country, again and again - when commanders called for combat volunteers, when it was time to normalize relations with Vietnam, when a leader in Congress was needed to help clean the environment. Each time duty called, Clinton said, Kerry responded, "Send me." He repeated the refrain several times, with the crowd joining in at the end.
"Tonight my friends, I ask you to join me for the next 100 days in telling John Kerry's story and promoting his ideas," Clinton said. "Let every person in this hall and like-minded people all across this land say to him what he has always said to America: Send me."
During the Vietnam War, Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard. Cheney asked for and got five student deferments before he turned 26 and became ineligible for the draft in 1967. He is famous for his explanation: "I had other priorities."
Clinton used a similar "Send me" refrain at a party unity dinner in the spring, shortly after Kerry wrapped up the nomination. But it was the first time many delegates had heard it.
Clinton urged Democrats to rally behind Kerry against Bush and a Republican Party that believes in an America "run by the right people - their people."
Though Clinton's appearance Monday night was cheered by delegates, some party strategists fear the former president could hurt Kerry's ability to court conservative Democrats and independents.
Al Gore, who lost to Bush in 2000, kept Clinton at a distance. Kerry has decided to use him to rally the party's base and help raise money.
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