'Ask Osama bin Laden if he's better off than he was four years ago'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) sought to boost President Obama's national security credentials in a rapid-fire speech Thursday night that depicted the president as an unflappable commander in chief ultimately responsible for the tough call to go after America's most wanted terrorist.

“Ask Osama bin Laden if he's better off now than he was four years ago,” Kerry told the Democratic National Convention to wild applause accompanied by high-fives and fist-bumps in the crowd.

“That's what I'm talking about!” one young delegate exhorted, while 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis watched on the edge of his seat in the Massachusetts delegation section.

The killing of bin Laden was the theme of that segment of the convention. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer also mentioned bin Laden shortly before Kerry spoke — “tonight … Osama bin Laden is at the bottom of the ocean” — followed by a short clip showing photos of Obama at the time of the decision.

The heavy focus on Obama's role in bin Laden's death risks re-igniting accusations that Democrats are spiking the football and ignoring U.S. troops. But Kerry sought to deny GOP nominee Mitt Romney's standing with the military by slamming his failure to mention Afghanistan, the longest war in the nation's history, during his acceptance speech in Tampa, Fla.

“No nominee for president should ever fail in the midst of a war to pay tribute to our troops overseas in his acceptance speech,” he said.

Kerry's remarks aimed to define Obama as a thoughtful yet firm president who has kept the country safe while “responsibly” winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Romney, by contrast, was painted as an inexperienced and indecisive candidate who's "out of touch at home, out of his depth abroad, and out of the mainstream.

“We've all learned Mitt Romney doesn't know much about foreign policy,” Kerry said in a jab at Romney's widely panned trip to England, Poland and Israel in July. “But he has all these [neoconservative] advisers who know all the wrong things about foreign policy. He would rely on them — after all, he's the great outsourcer.”

“But I say to you: This is not the time to outsource the job of commander in chief.”

Kerry reminded voters that Romney has called the idea of going after bin Laden in Pakistan “naive” and has yet to lay out a plan for Afghanistan.

“It isn’t fair to say Mitt Romney doesn’t have a position on Afghanistan. He has every position,” he said. “Mr. Romney, here's a little advice: Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you better finish the debate with yourself.”

From torture to the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq before the war in Afghanistan was won, Kerry argued, Obama successfully cleaned up a mess left behind by the preceding president.

“Just measure the disaster and disarray this president inherited: A war of choice in Iraq had become a war without end, and a war of necessity in Afghanistan had become a war of neglect,” Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, said. “Our alliances were shredded. Our moral authority was in tatters. America was isolated in the world.”

Romney would unravel that progress by refusing to cooperate with Russia on issues like nuclear disarmament, Kerry added. Obama, by contrast, has created an international coalition against Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, while vowing to “always to stand with Israel.”

Republicans have tried to make Israel an issue in this election by accusing Obama of not having the country's best interests at heart. The attacks created one of the few snafus of the Democrats' convention, when they had to amend their party plank to recognize Jerusalem as the nation's capital.

The prime-time slot — Kerry started speaking shortly before 9 p.m., about an hour before Vice President Biden — is seen as evidence that Kerry has a shot at the spot of secretary of State that he is widely rumored to covet. 

Choosing the decorated war veteran and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee does carry risks, though. Kerry polled dismally in the South when he ran for president in 2004 — he lost North Carolina by 12.4 points despite sharing the ticket with home state Sen. John Edwards — and his youthful anti-war activism has still not been forgiven by many pro-military voters.

— Posted at 6:30 p.m. and updated at 9:23 p.m.

Bernie Becker contributed to this story.