TORONTO — In a demonstration that the U.S. presidential campaign reaches around the globe, more than 70 Democratic activists, representing Americans living in 30 countries, met in Toronto on Saturday to select delegates to the party's national convention in Chicago this summer.
Delegates from the organization Democrats Abroad will have but nine votes at the Aug. 26-29 convention, but that didn't dim enthusiasm here.
The activists not only debated policy while meeting at a downtown hotel, but sipped Upper Canada Ale while partying amid Inuit sculptures at an upscale gallery and giddily took pictures of each other under the signposts at the intersection of Clinton and Gore streets--a genuine street corner in Toronto's Little Italy.
Behind the fun is a serious get-out-the-vote effort aimed at the Democrats among the 3 million or more Americans living overseas--an effort matched by Republicans Abroad. The GOP organization has no votes at the Republican National Convention in San Diego under that party's rules, so there is no equivalent to the Democrats' gathering here. But the two groups pursue similar strategies of encouraging U.S. voters abroad to register and vote.
"There is a friendly rivalry--and in some cases, a not-so-friendly rivalry--in some countries," said Sally McNulty, a London public relations consultant who chairs the 12,000-member Democratic organization.
The task can be complex because U.S. absentee voting rules vary not just state to state, but in some cases county to county. Neither national party allocates any money to the effort; it is strictly grass-roots organizing.
"We're confident those votes can make a difference in a close election," said Tom Fina, the Arlington, Va.-based executive director of Democrats Abroad.
His group, for example, made a major push to get out the vote in January's special election-by-mail in Oregon to replace the resigned GOP Sen. Bob Packwood. Democrat Ron Wyden won an upset victory, 48% to 47%.
Maureen Keating Tsuchya, the chairwoman of Democrats Abroad in Japan, said she personally tracked down more than 100 Oregon voters living in that country by pulling records of such organizations as the University of Oregon Alumni Assn.
The best reward most of these activists can hope for is a ticket to a reception or a seat in the audience if President Clinton visits the country where they live.
Most members are political junkies who were involved in politics before moving abroad. But sometimes their activism is awakened after they leave the United States.
David McCall, an engineer from Cleveland who traveled here from Moscow, where he works on a U.S.-Russian space project, said he joined Democrats Abroad last year after becoming concerned about isolationism in the Republican-led U.S. Congress.
All the delegates paid their own way to Toronto, some from as far away as Bangkok and Jerusalem. There's no dissent about renominating the president, but some fireworks may erupt today over a proposed platform amendment calling for a resumption of U.S. trade with Cuba, according to Jacqueline Swartz, a conference coordinator.
Toronto was selected as the site of the gathering in an effort to boost Democrats Abroad here. As in most countries, there is no precise figure on the number of U.S. citizens in Canada, but the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa estimates there are more than 657,000.
Bill Cronau, the group's chairman in Canada, lists 600 members, fewer than more established groups in Europe and the Middle East. Like most chapters, the Canadian group depends largely on word of mouth to gain members.
Neil Sinclair, the Toronto attorney who chairs Republicans Abroad in Canada, has a slightly bigger budget and takes out occasional ads in the Globe and Mail, the national newspaper. He counts a mailing list of 400. So far, he conceded in an interview last week, the presidential campaign has failed to ignite much passion among members.
"Sen. [Bob] Dole," he said, pausing to search for the right phrase about the evident Republican nominee. "He's treated as a very good elder statesman."