The party's prospective candidate for president, Senator John Kerry, voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq but has criticized the Bush administration for alienating the United Nations in the Iraq campaign. He has called the administration's use of the armed services reckless.
Party officials say the convention offers an opportunity for Kerry to spell out a new national security and foreign policy direction for the country after a campaign season in which a number of his views appeared to differ only slightly from the president's.
The chairman of the Democratic convention, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, tells RFE/RL that the party will cast a negative light on what he called the Bush administration's unilateralism: "The emphasis of the Democrats is going to be that America should not be unilateralist if we value alliances, we value NATO, we value the United Nations. Our first option at resolving a problem will be, is there a multilateral solution? If there isn't, then of course we will act bilaterally or unilaterally."
A draft of the Democratic platform -- or statement of principles -- that will be presented to the convention has a heavy emphasis on national security matters. "The New York Times" reported earlier this month that the party position paper calls for a major reworking of Bush's national security strategy. It quotes the draft as saying Bush's "doctrine of unilateral pre-emption has driven away our allies" and pledges to focus on preventing nuclear terrorism and improving the intelligence services.
Party platforms of U.S. political parties are not as binding as they are in parliamentary democracies. They serve to distinguish a party's views from its political rivals.
Norman Ornstein is a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He tells RFE/RL that the Democrats' strategy of projecting a strong but distinct foreign policy should serve it well at the convention: "I think if you showcase people who have experience in foreign policy and know what they are talking about at the convention, and make it clear that you're not going to have a naive group of people around you if you're president, and that you know what you're talking about, and that you are very much aware of the evil forces in the world, that's not a bad direction to go in as a challenger dealing with an incumbent who's got a lot of headaches out there."
Richardson, the convention chairman, says a key feature of the Democrats' national security policy is its link to energy policy. The Bush administration says its energy bill, which has stalled in the Senate, contains measures that would reduce U.S. dependency on foreign energy sources. The bill's measures include tax breaks for companies that develop ethanol and biodiesel products and clean-coal initiatives.
But the administration also faces charges from Democrats and environmentalists that it has consulted too closely with the energy industry in crafting policy.
Richardson says the Democrats will place a strong emphasis on energy conservation and efficiency: "You will see the renewable energy theme, the energy efficiency theme. Yes, responsible energy production initiatives, but not [programs that] bail out the nuclear and coal and oil and gas industries, [but] a balanced energy policy as a cornerstone of national security."
There is potential for division among the Democrats on trade issues. Kerry's running mate, Senator John Edwards, campaigned heavily on a protectionist theme in the presidential primaries. Edwards repeatedly cited the loss of manufacturing jobs to other countries.
Kerry supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), although he has said he would press for tougher labor and environmental standards from future trading partners.
Richardson says there will be a "healthy debate" within the party about trade, but he said there's common support among Democrats for trying to do more to protect workers' rights and improve training: "I belong to the free-trade wing of the Democratic Party, and there are some that feel that free trade, NAFTA, and many other international treaties have lost jobs overseas. I don't believe that's the case. What we will advocate, those of us in the moderate trade wing, is a strong internationalist America. NAFTA, I believe, was a success, creating jobs at the border for states like mine and others."
Party activists are hoping that in the course of the four-day convention, voters will come to know Kerry and his policies better.
Jim Gerstein is the director of Democracy Corps, a research organization that supports the Democratic Party but is distinct from the Kerry campaign. He says that in recent polling, his group has found potential voters are keen to learn more about Kerry: "They don't feel as though they know him. They don't feel as though they know what to expect, and the convention will be the stage in which he is able to communicate that."
Reaction to Kerry's acceptance speech on the final night of the convention -- 29 July -- will be watched closely to see whether he gains the traditional postelection "bounce" in opinion polls.