On the Floor of the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, before the near-unanimous delegate-count roll call that formally installed John Forbes Kerry as the party's presidential nominee, as the speeches droned on and the other delegates cheered themselves hoarse and danced themselves silly, Sylvia Olveda burst into tears. Twenty-seven years old, a resident of Bellevue who hit the streets last year as a protesting peace activist with Not in Our Name, Olveda couldn't help herself.

To get to Boston, she worked her way through the multi-tiered caucus process, sat through endless meetings, made her pitch to other party activists, all so she could pay for the privilege of being a delegate for Howard Dean. She believes in Dean because "he was the only one who stood up" when people like her needed a politician to stand up for them. Howard Dean is "what a Democrat should be." Now, as she expressed her desire to cast her vote for him, those around her on the floor made her feel that she had to vote for Kerry, that it was imperative the party unified behind its nominee. But John Kerry voted, after all, for the war. "In my conscience [Dean] was who I wanted to vote for," she said. So she dithered, and anguished, and basically stood firm as the pressure she felt to fall in line mounted.

It took a hastily arranged conversation with an elected official from the Vermont delegation, Dean's home state, to convince her to not break ranks. Olveda and the other Dean delegates had met with Dean on Monday behind closed doors, where the former frontrunner told them he was supporting Kerry, but where "he didn't technically release us--he said it was up to us [how we voted]," Olveda recalled. When she stressed this to the official from Vermont, he took out his Blackberry and pulled up a follow-up statement issued by Dean, in which the former Vermont governor made clearer his desire that his delegates support Kerry.

It worked. In the end, Olveda joined the other Dean delegates in voting for Kerry. She smiles as she tells me this, but it is hard to miss the lingering pain etched in her face.

Olveda's may be one small story in a very big, event-filled convention, but it stands as a microcosm of the story of the party itself in this apocalyptic election season. While the main theme stressed publicly at the convention was party unity, Olveda's story is one that is closer to the narrative arc of political activity over the last year in Seattle: dated Dean, married Kerry, though for those on the left it is clearly more of a shotgun wedding, or at best a marriage of convenience, than a lasting union.

So this was the central story of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, that scripted, intricately planned, and largely dramaless exercise in Brechtian agitprop: because of George Bush and his radical right-wing subversion of long-standing American ideals, more in spite of than because of Kerry, unity triumphed over ideology, pragmatism over idealism. An ideologically heterogeneous party dominated by single-issue constituency groups, known for its fractious infighting, self-serving leaders, and nasty turf wars, has decided, at least through November, to make public peace in the face of a common enemy.

* * * * *

In Boston, a city of elegant brick architecture which exudes a sense of history, the FleetCenter, opened in 1995, is a modern concrete monstrosity that looks like a massive cinderblock dropped onto the bank of the Charles River from on high. I spent the better part of four afternoons and evenings there last week, along with the 4,000-plus Democratic delegates, thousands of other party hangers-on, and 15,000 credentialed media members.

The speechifying begins each afternoon around 4:00 p.m., but the day starts much earlier, as the Washington State delegation, more than 100 strong, convenes for breakfast each morning to hear speeches from an odd mix of celebrities and politicos, from Carole King and Richard Dreyfus to Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich. Afternoons are spent bouncing around town. There are an endless array of political meetings and press conferences by party organizations to attend--a roundtable presentation for the media by Kerry's Vietnam crewmates, say, where they angrily denounce Republican-sponsored attacks of Kerry's service record.

After the speeches end each night around 11:00 p.m., there are dozens of parties, large and small, of varying quality. I attend a large, raucous Rock the Vote party at a club next to Fenway Park on Sunday, an extremely lame Microsoft reception at the Kennedy Library on Monday night for the Washington delegation (no hard liquor, inadequate food), a Music for America punk show at the Middle East in Cambridge on Tuesday, and so on. Evenings end late, around 3:00 a.m. typically, and it's back to the hotel for a couple hours of sleep before the next day's breakfast.

The convention, at least in its official, FleetCenter aspect, is largely an exercise in tedium occasionally leavened by short outbreaks of moderate excitement. On Monday night, actress Glenn Close, comporting herself like a graduate of the William Shatner School of hammy overacting, comes up to the podium to deliver a prose-poem tribute to the victims of 9/11 that is so treacly-fake that it actually has me cringing in my seat. At least that was memorable; most of the time attendees are subjected to obscure politicians I've never heard of and whom I hope to never hear from again after suffering through their mind-numbingly boilerplate blather. "It's like being a sports fan. And it's baseball, the slowest of the sports," is how Ellen Meserow, 34, a Washington State Dean staffer during the primaries who is here as a member of the party's credentials committee (which apparently doesn't do a whole lot), describes the proceedings.

Meserow's metaphor is an apt one. I sit through an endless blur of political speeches for seven hours a day, occasionally good ones from big names--Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Al Sharpton give the best addresses--but mostly dull. The speeches have been carefully scrubbed by the Kerry camp of any anti-Bush heat, and the speakers come across as unusually disciplined in presenting a blandly moderate, smiley-faced vision of unity to the viewing public. I eat egregiously overpriced stadium food and hanker impotently after cold beer and a cigarette (no alcohol is being served on the premises for the duration of the convention and it's a long journey from the nosebleeds, where I am sitting, to get outside to smoke). I stroll the concourse, threading my way through the milling throngs, watching political and media stars saunter by: Bob Graham, Jesse Jackson, David Brooks, David Broder.

But, aside from Kerry's speech on Thursday night, nothing that happens this week is of any lasting significance. The real story, to the extent there is a real story at the convention, is the delegates themselves. Democrats want to win, yes, but do they want to win badly enough to put aside their differences? The public face of the party conveys unity, but is all the togetherness only skin deep?

* * * * *

Most of the delegates are full-on Kerry supporters. In Washington State, the Kerry campaign had put forward a slate of delegates at the state convention chosen for their loyalty to the candidate. Seattle City Council president Jan Drago is a typical example. A longtime Democrat, she is here as a reward for sticking her neck out and endorsing Kerry at a time when it seemed he had no chance of winning the nomination, though she continued to believe he was the best candidate. "For a year I didn't know anybody supporting Kerry. Everybody was supporting Dean," she recounted to me over coffee Wednesday afternoon. But she also knew how out of step Seattle is with the rest of the country: "The bottom line was that just because Seattle was supporting someone doesn't mean anything nationwide."

Nonetheless, delegates like Drago aside, you don't have to spend too much time scratching under the surface to get a sense of the tensions that remain beneath the convention's placid sheen of togetherness. On Wednesday afternoon I sit in the lobby of the Boston Radisson, where the Washington delegation is encamped, with former Dean campaign staffer Meserow and Lawrence Winnerman, 34, a Dean alternate. Though they wear stickers that read "Another Dean Delegate for Kerry," they're both Seattle liberals and still Dean partisans, and they're feeling a little pissed off about some comments made by Harold Ford Jr., a centrist Democratic congressman from Tennessee and an early Kerry supporter, at the delegation breakfast that morning. Ford, upon entering the ballroom, spied the Howard Dean T-shirts sported by delegates--Dean collected 24 of 76 elected Washington State delegates, making it his largest state contingent--and started off by saying that he wanted to make sure that everyone knew they needed to be on board with Kerry.

It's a comment that strikes the Dean people as arrogant and condescending. "We were sort of insulted," Meserow says. "That's the kind of thing I expect from the Democratic Party. The DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] and the Southern Dems have been dominating this party for so long and sitting on the message."

Winnerman too is less than in love with the Kerry centrist wing of the party. A gay activist who lives in Queen Anne, he describes himself as having been a "yell-at-the-TV Democrat" until he became active in the party last year after being moved by Dean's fiery anti-Bush rhetoric. He attended the Democrats' platform committee meeting in Hollywood, Florida under the auspices of the Backbone Campaign, a Vashon Island-based organization of activists determined to push the party to the left.

It was an eye-opening experience. The "Kerry machine," he says, "whipped the meeting," making sure the platform didn't contain anything controversial--and didn't sound too liberal. Still, he credits the Kerry people with allowing some negotiation, and feels like he has made a difference. "I really did feel like I had actual power there," he says. "I think we strengthened the Kerry document as we hashed out final language with them."

Neither Meserow nor Winnerman comes to the convention as much of a Kerry fan, but they are on board because they hate the direction Bush is taking the country. "Bush is doing irreparable damage," Meserow says as she explains her determination to work for Kerry's election. She admits that as political neophytes, Dean backers may have failed to understand how the political system works: "We naively thought we had all the answers." When I ask her how she feels about Kerry, her response is bloodless and rather tactical. He "brings some strengths to the ticket" and will appeal to "a different kind of Democrat, people more integrated into the process" than the outsiders who flocked to the Dean banner.

There is another group of delegates who are even more lukewarm about the Kerry candidacy: supporters of Dennis Kucinich. While Dean long ago endorsed Kerry, and has been playing a role in the Kerry campaign, particularly with respect to its efforts to keep liberals from defecting to Ralph Nader, Kucinich kept his campaign going long after the nomination had been decided.

There are seven Kucinich supporters in the Washington delegation, representing the hard nub of the counter-cultural left. The star of the contingent is fearless 19-year-old Jessica Beckett of Bellingham, a tiny woman with an oversized personality. She stands out in the conventional-appearing delegation, sporting dreadlocks, a nose stud, a ring through her lower lip and with an affection for hippie dresses. She shows me a button someone has given her which reads, "Mushroom lovers for Kerry/Edwards." Describing herself as "a protester type," she believes that "too much attention is given to the centrists" in the party. Centrist voters "don't like George Bush," she contends, arguing that as a matter of strategy the party needs to reach out to people like herself to keep them from abandoning the Democrats. "The people you have to worry about are progressives, because they could vote for Nader. It's a viable choice."

Kerry, unsurprisingly, evokes mixed emotions in Beckett. "John Kerry doesn't really speak to me. Dennis Kucinich speaks to me." The afternoon of Kerry's acceptance speech, she says, "I might as well watch them crown their king." Then she pauses for a moment, before correcting herself. "There I go again, self-identifying as not a Democrat." But Beckett is not anti-Kerry, either, believing that the party is diverse enough to tolerate both people like herself and more mainstream Kerry supporters. "The great thing about the Democrats is that dialogue can still happen," she says. "It's not easy, but it works out."

Still, even the Kucinich delegates are not really outliers, at least not completely. Publicly, Kucinich has strongly endorsed Kerry in the week before the convention, and when he addresses the Washington State delegation on Monday, he goes out of his way to stress party unity. "We are one, we are one," he says. Speaking with Washington State reporters during an impromptu press conference afterward, he continues in the same vein: "There is not any difference of opinion about electing John Kerry. We made our points, but we are not going to be divided." Or, as Beckett expresses it to me: "Unity isn't the same as uniformity."

On the other hand, like Dean, Kucinich has met privately with his delegates, where he told them they should vote according to their consciences. For Beckett, the choice is easy. At the meeting, she tells Kucinich that this is the first time she has ever voted, and she is determined to vote for him. In some delegations, though, Kucinich delegates face intense pressure; delegates who say they are going to stand firm and vote for Kucinich have been strong-armed with threats that progressive candidates in those states in the future will be sandbagged if they don't come around to Kerry. Nothing like that happens in the Washington delegation, though Beckett admitted she too felt "lots of pressure." They resist it, though. When the co-chair of the Washington delegation, Rep. Adam Smith, who is also the chair of Kerry's Washington campaign, announces the state tally, the result is 88 for Kerry, 7 for Kucinich, though the Kucinich delegates soften the blow by having Smith declare that all the state's delegates are united in their determination to elect Kerry. The final convention tally: 4,255 votes for Kerry, 37 for Kucinich. If the show of unity is not perfect, it is close enough.

* * * * *

Of the dozens of orations the delegates were subjected to, the only speech that really mattered was Kerry's 50-minute address on Thursday evening. It turns out to be a masterpiece of carefully crafted positioning, offering something to all the party's factions and ideological groupings without losing the overall thrust toward a soothing centrism--it succeeds, as it is intended to, in allaying the fears of undecided and disengaged voters disaffected with Bush's narrow rigidity but concerned that Kerry lacked a tough enough core to serve as commander in chief. On stage, Kerry made it look easy, but a closer reading of the speech showed his success in performing what amounts to a delicate and risky operation on the electorate's collective brain.

He got off to a brilliant start, flanked by Vietnam crewmates and implicitly contrasting his own biography as a war hero with Bush's sketchy military service as he saluted the crowd and stated, "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty." He came across as rock solid on terrorism: "I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president. Let there be no mistake: I will never hesitate to use force when it is required.... As president, I will fight a smarter, more effective war on terror." On homeland security and the war on terror, Kerry smartly and effectively attacked Bush from the right, calling for better preparation to face the threat of attack and for a larger, better equipped military.

But that wasn't enough, not given the internal dynamics of the party Kerry represents. The party's left flocked to Dean last year because they were desperate for someone who could articulate their disquiet about the country's post-9/11 frog march to the right under the manipulative rule of the pinstriped partisans of Bush Republicanism. They were wary of Kerry for the same reason; they rightly saw him as a central cog in a malfunctioning Democratic machine that rolled over in the face of Bush radicalism with little more than a pathetic whimper.

Here is where Kerry's speech excelled, because while it lacked the soaring rhetoric of Barack Obama or the barn-burning excitement of Sharpton, it contained much for liberals to love. Kerry scorched Bush, driving straight at the president's vulnerabilities, in a way reminiscent of the early Dean: "I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war. I will have a vice president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a secretary of defense who will listen to the best advice of our military leaders. And I will appoint an attorney general who actually upholds the constitution of the United States."

The press and commentariat loved the speech, which was important and will color their coverage of the race. But so did the people in the hall, particularly those who were wary of Kerry before. Meserow cried all the way through the second half of the speech. "Honestly, I finally felt like I was part of the party," she told me later. She understood the centrist thrust of the message, but she also felt Kerry had understood the liberal yearning for a major course correction. "He was 50 percent into the Republican Party, and all the way past me to the Kucinich people without offending anybody," she said.

* * * * *

The Democrats' overriding public message of this convention, that the party is unified in the way that has probably not been the case since before Vietnam and the rise of the counter-cultural left, was more than just empty spin. That point was driven home to me on Thursday afternoon, when I attended an event in honor of Adam Smith. It was a Boeing-sponsored party celebrating a pro-Iraq war New Democrat, held in a chain brew pub, and yet everyone is here: Dean supporters, including Olveda, Meserow and Winnerman, activists from the Backbone Campaign, Jess Beckett and other Kucinich people. This doesn't appear to strike anyone but myself as odd. Aside from a few whispered grumbles here and there, everyone seems to get along.

I point this out to Smith, and he nods. "Yes, there's no question this party is absolutely and totally unified," he said. "[Party] veterans who have been around longer than I have are saying the same thing." While he admitted that some supporters of other candidates might not love Kerry, he said, "We are on a mission, and are united behind John Kerry."

It's what he's supposed to say, of course, and for the most part it's true. But that doesn't mean that the old tensions are gone--far from it. Smith probably knows this better than anyone. Though he minimizes it to me when I ask him about it, his recent congressional vote to preserve the PATRIOT Act--he was the only Washington State Democrat to vote that way--produced howls of outrage from within the party's rank and file, and his office was flooded with angry calls in ensuing days.

The party may be unified, but it is a temporary state of affairs. They are unified for now, unified against Bush. If Kerry wins in November, the intra-party fireworks are likely to begin anew, this time even louder and more intense. The support of the left wing of the party has not been given to Kerry freely. They expect payback, and they will begin demanding things the moment Bush is gone (if he is gone). Olveda, for instance, told me she cast her vote for Kerry in the belief that Dean would have a part to play in a Kerry administration. "We've vowed to keep on them and make them hear progressive views," she said. The pent-up demand from the liberal wing of the party, encompassing a long list of grievances stretching well back into the Clinton administration, is something that it is unlikely Kerry could ever fulfill, even if he wanted to do so.

Nonetheless, these really are battles deferred in the face of a common interest in ousting Bush. Right now, for these people, the promise of change has overcome the fear of betrayal. As Winnerman puts it to me one afternoon about the delegates, "We're the throngs of people standing there [on the convention floor] with hope shining in our eyes."