BOSTON (AP) – Former President Clinton stirred the opening night of the Democratic National Convention Monday with a summons to send John Kerry to the White House, attacking President Bush for pursuing policies that divide the nation.

“Strength and wisdom are not opposing values,” Clinton said sarcastically of the man who followed him into office.

“They need a divided America but we don’t,” the former president said of the Republicans who have held power for four years.

The 42nd president was the cleanup speaker for the night, joining a parade of party elders to the podium for oratory designed to depict Kerry as a Vietnam War hero – and George W. Bush as a chief executive who has botched the economy as well as the war on terror.

The Massachusetts senator “will lead the world, not alienate it. Lower the deficit, not raise it. Create good jobs, not lose them. Solve a health care crisis, not ignore it,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in her turn at the podium.

The party’s 44th national convention opened under extraordinarily tight security as Kerry campaigned in Florida. In a battleground state he has visited more than a half-dozen times this year, he urged Republicans and independents to “stop and think” before casting their votes in November.

With the Kerry campaign choreographing the proceedings to the minute, the famous and the nationally unknown were put in service for the Massachusetts senator’s White House bid.

“When policies are clearly not working, we can change them. If our leaders make mistakes, we can hold them accountable – even if they never admit their mistakes,” said Al Gore, who lost the 2000 election despite winning the popular vote.

“Lt. Kerry was known for taking the fight to the enemy,” said the Rev. David Alston, who served on a Vietnam swiftboat commanded by Kerry a generation ago. He brought the delegates to their feet when he called the senator “my former skipper, my friend and our next commander in chief.”

Clinton was buffeted by charges of dodging the draft throughout his 1992 campaign and presidency, and in a moment of self-criticism made the point that Kerry volunteered for the Southeast Asian conflict.

“During the Vietnam War, many young men including the current president, the vice president and me could have gone to Vietnam but didn’t. John Kerry came from a privileged background and could have avoided it too.

“Instead he said, send me,” Clinton said.

“When they sent those swift-boats up the river in Vietnam, and told them their job was to draw hostile fire to show the American flag and bait the enemy to come out and fight, John Kerry said, send me,” Clinton continued.

There were moments of solemnity, as well, at the first national political convention since the terror attacks of Sept., 11, 2001.

The hall went nearly dark, the only light provided by thousands of small flashlights held aloft by delegates for a remembrance of the strikes that killed nearly 3,000 souls. The haunting sounds of “Amazing Grace” floated across the arena from the violin of a 16-year-old musician.

The first night of the convention included only muted references to the social issues that divide America. “John Kerry and John Edwards won’t prevent you from getting the reproductive health care you need,” said Gloria Feldt of Planned Parenthood.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin said Kerry will guarantee the right to family health benefits to all our families – including domestic partners.

Gore urged Democrats to “fully and completely” channel their anger of the bitter Florida recount that decided the 2000 election and send Kerry to the White House.

The former vice president drew repeated ovations from delegates packed into the FleetCenter – none louder than when he drew his wife Tipper into a kiss reminiscent of the one they shared at the convention four years ago in Los Angeles.

Gore’s remarks drew praise from Raymond Zeller, chairman of Miami-Dade County Democratic Party. “They cannot forget what happened in the year 2000. And they dare not (let it) happen again,” Zeller said.

Former President Carter, elected to the White House in 1976, accused Bush of squandering the international goodwill that flowed to the United States in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Unilateral acts and demands have isolated the United States from the very nations we need to join us in combatting terrorism,” Carter said.

Clinton, who twice led his party to victory, declared himself “a foot soldier” in Kerry’s army and urged Americans to rally behind the candidate’s upbeat message.

“Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas on what choices we should make, rooted in fundamentally different views of how we should meet our common challenges at home and how we should play our role in the world,” the former president said.

“Democrats want to build an America of shared responsibilities and shared opportunities … Republicans believe in an America run by the right people – their people,” he said.

Kerry runs even to slightly ahead of Bush in the polls, and Republicans dispatched a team of surrogates to the Democrats’ convention city to try to slow his campaign momentum. “The Extreme Makeover Convention,” they called it, deriding the senator as a liberal trying to run from a record of more than two decades in Congress.

Bush, at his ranch in Texas, fell while bicycling on steep dirt paths during the day. He waved away his medics and continued his ride despite a small cut on his knee.

What passed for controversy at the Democrats’ unified convention was stirred by Kerry’s wife. She told a persistent reporter on Sunday to “shove it” when he urged her to expand on her call for more civility in politics.

“I think my wife speaks her mind appropriately,” Kerry told reporters who asked about the exchange between Teresa Heinz Kerry and the editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., evoked the first energetic response of the night from the delegates. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?

“No,” came back the shouted reply from Democrats eager to turn Bush out of office.

The delegates gathered amid unprecedented security for the first national political convention since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The subway station that runs near the FleetCenter was barricaded shut, and armed personnel stood guard along a seven-foot-tall metal security fence that ringed the convention complex.

At the behest of the Secret Service, the city revoked a permit for Operation Rescue and several other anti-abortion groups to demonstrate outside Kerry’s Beacon Hill home during convention week.

The groups sued, to no avail. “I’m not going to second-guess the Secret Service’s idea of how they feel they need to protect a presidential candidate,” said Judge Nathaniel Gorton in denying the request.

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AP-ES-07-26-04 2331EDT

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