The most anticipated and important speech of John Kerry’s career is Thursday. Many wonder if he can make it a defining moment. I’m afraid it better be – or it’s four more years of the idiots.

Ken Baer, a former Gore speechwriter (how’s that for a tough task), writes a little bit of what Kerry shouldn’t say and more about how Kerry should deliver his speech.

Overall, his six points aren’t bad:

First and foremost, speak to the audience at home, not to those gathered in the convention hall.

…Second, mesh biography with destiny.

…Third, do not be bold.

…Fourth, mention Ronald Reagan.

…Fifth, less John F. Kennedy and more John Wayne.

…Finally, don’t go over the time allotted.

Catergorically, I agree with numbers 1,2 and 6. Number three is also a pretty good idea in that you don’t want to offer some new far reaching policy that is subject to instant analysis.

I don’t think there’s a need to mention Ronnie. The glow from his funeral has already dimmed considerably. But certainly, as Baer suggests, optimism is important. We don’t want another malaise speech, a la Jimmy Carter.

And “let us” and other rhetorical flourishes aren’t necessary but neither are they antithetical. Any speaker should first and foremost be comfortable with his own words.

Writing yesterday in The Washington Post, Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol, agreed. But Kerry has to be careful not to try to sound like an eastern cowboy. If anything, Kerry needs to present a clear alternative, not a slightly leftist version of “Bring it on” bravado.

More important than any of these suggestions is to stake out a clear and compelling vision of the future. And that will take the courage to disagree not only with what Bush has done but what he seems prepared to do in the future.

It’s OK for Kerry to say that he understands that Americans want affordable health care and retirement before they want tax cuts. It’s OK to say that our role in the world is not to bully those we disagree with but to understand their positions and work for peace. Bush doesn’t want peace; he wants to win a war. There’s a big difference.

Kerry needs to articulate how he will address some of the reasons terrorists exist. It’s not because “they hate freedom and our way of life.” As Anonymous, the author of the book “Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror,” has articulated, we are fighting with people who don’t like our policies. Some of those fixes are easy: Get our troops of Saudi Arabia. Others are harder but possible: Seek a balanced approach to the Middle East and pressure repressive regimes in the Arab world to embrace democracy.

On the domestic front, I hope Kerry dwells on the two Americas John Edwards has identified. Kerry needs to tell us that there’s no longer a level playing field. People who work hard should be able to provide for their families and they should be judged no more harshly than “them that’s got.”

What seems to upset a lot of people is that there is no sense of fair play anymore. Whether its greater prison sentences for black kids for crack cocaine vs. a few months at Club Fed or parole for white kids sniffing the same stuff to white collar crime that’s viewed as almost a cost of doing business, there are plenty of fairness issues that would resonant. My father used to say that in his time when a company went bankrupt, the leaders resigned in disgrace and avoided the limelight. Now they negotiate a multi-million dollar severance, appear on talk shows and then remerge as the chief executive of another firm.

Kerry can evoke the idea of personal responsibility in a way that all can embrace. Yes, those who aren’t born lucky have to work a little harder. But those lucky ones also have a personal responsibility to others. We all have a responsibility to each other. The next dollar the millionaire earns should be about as hard to make as the next one the plumber makes. We shouldn’t allow some people to live in decadence and outside the law when some who abide by the law are starving, especially when they’re children. Perhaps no better example exists than in the nation’s capital where “the top 20 percent of the city’s households have 31 times the average income of the 20 percent at the bottom.”

If Kerry doesn’t hit a home run this week, his candidacy may be doomed. If that happens, what might become of the Democratic party? Daily Kos has some thoughts.