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Carter: Kerry 'the president we need now'

Former President Jimmy Carter
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CNN's Bill Hemmer talks with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

CNN's Dan Lothian on protesters at the convention site.

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Presidents and performers:  The scene in Boston

• Day One:  On tap Monday
• The scene:  Former presidents
• Gallery:  Convention preps
• Interactive:  Polling in 3 states
Day One: Monday

• Theme: "The Kerry-Edwards Plan for America's Future"

• 4 p.m. ET: Convention called to order by Terry McAuliffe

• 7-9 p.m. ET: Speakers include Bill Richardson, Al Gore, Glenn Close, Barbara Mikulski

• 9-10 p.m. ET: Speakers include Jimmy Carter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton
Which Democrat's speech are you most likely to tune in for?
John Kerry
Bill Clinton
John Edwards
Barack Obama
John F. Kerry
George W. Bush
Jimmy Carter

BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Hours before former President Jimmy Carter was to speak at the Democratic National Convention on Monday evening, CNN's Judy Woodruff asked him if his party has changed in the 28 years since he was first nominated for president.

CARTER: Well, I don't know. The party has come together at this convention more than any in my memory, including my own. The '76 convention was quite harmonious.

The 1980 convention was divided, and we never could put the Democratic Party back together. And since then, I don't think we've ever seen as united and determined and harmonious a party, and determined as the Democratic convention of this time.

WOODRUFF: You mentioned the 1980 convention being divisive. You had been challenged in the primaries by Senator Ted Kennedy. You beat him, but then you went on to lose in the fall. Why should one expect another Massachusetts liberal to do well in this election? He didn't do so well that year.

CARTER: Well, I don't look on John Kerry as a so-called liberal. You know, anyone who offers his life to go to war for our country, and is wounded several times, and comes back to speak out fervently in favor of peace when a war is not necessary, I don't look upon as being anyone to criticize as being liberal or overly conservative or whatever.

I look on Kerry as one who has gotten through his lifetime of experience exactly what is needed in makeup and battleground and learning and determination, and his ideals to be the president we need now in this troubled time.

My wife and I have visited about 120 countries since I left the White House, and we've seen the last two-and-a-half years a devastating reduction in the basic esteem that the rest of the world has for our country, and the basic trust that people have in our country. And I hope to see John Kerry restore that respect and esteem.

Also, we need to concentrate our effort on the battle against terrorism. And we've lost the support of the vast number of countries in the world that offered their support after [the attacks of September 11, 2001]. I think John Kerry is a guy who can bring that back.

WOODRUFF: You're saying that esteem is lost under President Bush, because of President Bush?

CARTER: Absolutely. We've had such a confused foreign policy with demands on other nations. We've alienated almost everyone who offered their support after 9/11, and now we have just a handful of little tiny countries supposedly helping us in Iraq. We need to marginally combine the effort of major allies and minor countries as well in combating terrorism around the world.

WOODRUFF: I hear what you're saying about Senator Kerry's record, President Carter, but the polls are showing, when the American people are asked who would do a better job on the war on terror, George W. Bush or John Kerry, George W. Bush is far ahead. Isn't that a real problem for Senator Kerry?

CARTER: It's a temporary problem. But I think after this convention, and when the two candidates are face to face, either in debates or on the campaign trail, you'll see a dramatic change in favor of John Kerry as the one to be most trusted in combating terrorism and defending our country's security, because he's proven in advance of this, in Vietnam, 'I'm ready to give my life, if necessary, to defend my country.' When that is made clear to the American people, which it hasn't been so far, I think that difference will be dissipated.

WOODRUFF: Let me ask you something about this convention. The platform says, among other things, it's clearly trying to paper over differences in the party. For example, on Iraq, it says, "People of goodwill will disagree about whether America should have gone to war." Is that smart not to be straightforward about Iraq?

CARTER: I didn't write the platform. And there are a lot of Democrats who feel that we should have gone to war. I was opposed to the war from the very beginning, as you may remember. But now that we're in the war, I think it will be a mistake for the Democratic Party to come out and say we're against what's going on over there now, as far as American military personnel are concerned.

We have to show our patriotism, we have to show our support for people at war for us in Iraq. But as far as the beginning of the war, and the lies that were told to justify it on behalf of the Bush administration, I think the American people are slowly realizing that it was a mistake.

WOODRUFF: You actually believe the administration told lies to get the country, the Congress and the American people ...

CARTER: There were obviously false statements, Judy. I mean, that's been proven about weapons of mass destruction and the so-called relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda and so forth. All that's been proven to be completely false. Whether it was deliberate or not, I'm not in any position to say.

WOODRUFF: It's been known -- they told us, the Kerry campaign -- that they are vetting all of these speeches, they're making sure that any overt criticism of George W. Bush is kept to a minimum. Did they give you instructions about your speech tonight and tell you what to say or not to say?

CARTER: Of course not. No, I wrote my own speech with the help of some old friends with whom you're familiar, and my speech is just what I want to say.

WOODRUFF: They didn't say go easy on George W. Bush and focus on Mr. Kerry, or ...

CARTER: No, they didn't have to. I think it would be a mistake for me as a senior statesman -- and I emphasize the word "senior" -- to come out and start berating George Bush personally.

What I want to do is to draw a distinction between his credentials both in the past and now, and those credentials of John Kerry in facing future challenges to this country. And that's what I'm going to do.

WOODRUFF: A couple of other things, President Carter. The South, your home state of Georgia, apparently, is not even in play for the Democrats in this election. Does John Kerry ... even have a chance anywhere in the South? Does John Edwards make any difference in Dixie?

CARTER: Well, I couldn't say. I think Georgia is heavily inclined to vote Republican. I can't deny that. I hope it will change between now and November.

But there are a lot of other states in the South. Florida, I think, is kind of a tossup. I think John Kerry has an excellent chance to win Florida and a lot of other states as well.

But I think in the long run, it's not a regional basis. It's who gets the most votes, as you know, in the final analysis. And I don't have any doubt that John Kerry has at least an equal chance now to win at this moment. The polls show that. And my belief is that between now and November the odds will change heavily in his favor.

WOODRUFF: But are they smart to basically make it a Midwest strategy? They're not saying, of course, they've written off the South, but the indications are they're not making the kind of effort in the South that they are in Ohio, Michigan.

CARTER: Well, we did the same thing back in 1976. We tried to concentrate on states where we had a fighting chance. But New York's not in the South, Massachusetts's not in the South, Connecticut's not in the South, California's not in the South. And the Democrats are making an all-out effort in those states and have an excellent chance to win.

So I think there has to be a picking and choosing of where you spend the limited resources, particularly of a candidate's time. And to make a judgment by the poll results, we do have a fighting chance here based on the previous election results four years ago.

WOODRUFF: Last question: What does John Kerry have to do this week to help himself?

CARTER: I think a lot of American people are going to tune in to hear his acceptance speech. He's done a fine job in choosing a vice president. And he's got a good platform, and he's got excellent credentials from the past.

I think when he makes his acceptance speech he's got to show he has the firm resolve that he's shown the rest of his life for our nation's defense, that he's wise and sound, that he'll be, I would say, resurrecting the finest aspects of America's basic principles and judgment and values. And I think that's what he's going to do.

I'm sure he's going to try hard. And judging from his past successes, I believe that will be a good speech.

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