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Kerry's time to make his case

In his speech, he has to give voters a reason to elect him in a tough time.

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John Kerry has been called aloof, patrician, and formal. Repeatedly, the Democrats' presidential candidate fails the "barbecue" test against President Bush. That is, voters say they would rather have Bush over to their backyard barbecue than Senator Kerry.

But with the nation under constant threat of terrorist attack and more than 135,000 American troops in Iraq, the 2004 election isn't about choosing a next-door neighbor, analysts say. It's about electing a president who can lead at a time of challenge on every front - on security at home and abroad, and on kitchen-table issues, such as jobs and healthcare.

For months, polls have shown a slim majority of voters as unhappy with Bush's overall job performance and with the direction of the nation. But that majority hasn't shown a willingness to take the next step: throw the incumbent out of office and put a new man in his place. And therein lies Kerry's biggest challenge when he addresses the nation Thursday night - he must begin to persuade enough Americans to vote for change in uncertain times. "The one thing Kerry has to do is establish that he's qualified to be president in a time of war - war on terror, war in Iraq," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. "If he doesn't pass that threshold, then even if people are unhappy with George Bush, George Bush can still win."

That's where Kerry's biography and life experience enter the picture, analysts say. Almost a third of voters still say they don't know enough about Kerry to have an opinion of him, and Thursday night's speech will be many Americans' first unfiltered look at him. "It's a tough speech, obviously," says Robert Borosage, codirector of the liberal Democratic group Campaign for America's Future. "This is his introduction to a lot of Americans. He puts out both the story of his own values and how they come out of his experience and how that relates to their situation."

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