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Democrats' Convention Planners Humming 'Hail to the Chief'

Themes: Praise for Clinton's record will be the unifying note sounded by an otherwise diverse roster of speakers. Attack politics aren't on the bill.

August 25, 1996|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — A precision-tuned docket of orators. A star turn for the standard-bearer's wife. And plenty of palaver about family values.

At first glance what Democratic National Convention planners are arranging for their conclave that opens here Monday sounds much like what their GOP counterparts presented a fortnight ago in San Diego. But this is a Democratic convention, and much will be different--both in substance and in style.

In San Diego, roughly a third of the delegates identified themselves as supporters of the Christian Coalition. Here, roughly a quarter are union activists. The nation's teachers unions, whom GOP nominee Bob Dole denounced from the podium in San Diego, will have a major presence here--some 400 delegates are members of the National Education Assn., as compared with only 34 in San Diego.

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In San Diego, while the party tried to highlight speakers who were minorities, 88% of the delegates were white, 3% black and 3% Latino. Here, 67% of the delegates are white, 19% black, 9% Latino and 3% Asian.

In San Diego, the Republicans presented an assembly of mostly moderate speakers, who largely avoided talking about a solidly conservative party platform. Here, the Democrats plan to present many liberal speakers--from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts to the Rev. Jesse Jackson--but most are expected to hew to the tone of a solidly moderate party platform.

Most important, in San Diego, Republican officials concentrated on criticizing President Clinton while largely avoiding talk of the politically unpopular record of the Republican Congress. Here, speakers intend to strive to convince voters that Clinton has done such a diligent job of protecting the electorate's interests that voters can hardly afford not to pick up his option for another four years in the White House. Simultaneously, the Democrats hope to refocus voters' attention on some of the GOP's more controversial positions and leaders, notably the "contract with America" and House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

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"The Republicans put on a damn good convention," conceded Deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes. "But they left out an awful lot. You heard nothing about their platform, nothing about their 'contract with America,' and Newt Gingrich was hardly visible."

The Democrats will have one major luxury in which Dole and his party could not indulge. Dole entered his convention with polls showing that large numbers of Republican voters were not yet ready to vote for him. As a result, Republican planners said they needed to spend much of their convention recapturing the party's base. By contrast, the experience of a Republican Congress has already cemented Clinton's support among core Democrats. As a result, Ickes says, at this convention, "we are focusing not so much on the Democratic Party as a party, but on the American people."

Much of the emphasis, of course, will be on Clinton's record. "Bill Clinton will use this convention to say, 'Look, we've done some pretty good things; we turned the corner in this country,' " said David Wilhelm, who managed Clinton's 1992 campaign and served as Democratic national chairman. Clinton can argue, Wilhelm said, that " 'I said I'd create 8 million new jobs--well, we created 10 million new jobs.' "

Actually, Clinton will start making those points today during a four-day train trip through key states before arriving here on Wednesday.

Then, in his acceptance speech, aides say, he plans to go beyond discussing his past performance and lay out what the party's communications director, David Eichenbaum, calls "a positive vision for the future and an agenda for the 21st century."

"It will be about what the president hopes to accomplish in his second term."

The convention's opening night "will be primarily nonpolitical," according to Ann Lewis, Clinton's deputy campaign manager. Top billing goes to gun-control advocate Sarah Brady and actor Christopher Reeve, who has emerged as a prime fund-raiser for spinal cord research since he was paralyzed in a horse-riding accident.

But in addition, Democratic planners expect to produce, as the Republicans did, "ordinary Americans" who will talk about issues that convention organizers hope will put Clinton and his party in a good light.

These are people, Lewis said, "whom we consider real heroes" because "they exemplify the challenges that modern Americans have to meet and hopefully exemplify the opportunities provided by this administration to meet those challenges."

Clinton's strategists are trying to separate their candidate not only from conventional politics but also from his own party's often turbulent past. None of the four living former Democratic presidential standard-bearers--Michael S. Dukakis, Walter F. Mondale, Jimmy Carter and George S. McGovern--will be given time at the podium. In fact, as far as party officials will say, none will even show up in Chicago.

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