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DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION '96

Keynoter Bayh Represents a New Era for Democrats : He's a fiscal conservative who is tough on crime and moderate on social issues. His Midwest address doesn't hurt either.

August 27, 1996|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana, tonight's keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, brings to the podium impeccable credentials as a rising political star--and, just as important, the Midwest address that both parties covet in this year's presidential campaign.

Known as Indiana's "boy wonder" when elected chief executive in 1988 at the age of 32, Bayh (pronounced "buy") has come to represent the "New Democrat" that President Clinton tries to be: a fiscal conservative who is tough on crime, a moderate on social issues and a leading proponent of welfare reform.

Tall, Hollywood-handsome and untainted by scandal or controversy, Bayh sometimes sounds more Republican than his GOP rivals--quite unlike his father, Birch Bayh, an unabashed Democratic liberal who served three terms in the U.S. Senate. He was unseated in 1980 by Dan Quayle, the victory that set the Republican on the path to the vice presidency.

Evan Bayh, Democratic officials say, was a natural choice for the keynote speech. As a Midwesterner, he represents a region viewed as crucial to the outcome of the November election. As the Democratic governor of a traditionally Republican state, he carries exceptionally high approval ratings and an impressive eight-year political record. Indeed, four years ago he became the state's first Democratic governor to win reelection in 146 years.

On top of that, at age 40, he has a made-for-TV family life: His wife, Susan, is an attorney, and their first children, twins Birch IV and Nicholas, were born last November. Bayh handed out bubble-gum cigars to celebrate their arrival.

Nor does it seem a political coincidence that the keynoter at the Republican National Convention in San Diego, Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, also conveyed an image of family and youthful faith in the future. Her daughter, Susan Ruby Paxon, not yet 3 months old, was briefly a TV mini-star at the convention.

"Bayh is a guy who hasn't ceded any issues to the Republicans," said Chuck Alston, communications director for the Democratic National Committee. "He's run budget surpluses, hasn't raised taxes, is tough on crime. The problem with a lot of Democrats is that they say, 'Oh, those are Republican issues, so we'll go off and talk about Medicare.' Not Bayh.

"And I think there's important symbolism here too. It's that this isn't Birch Bayh's Democratic Party anymore."

Evan Bayh, the first Hoosier to give a keynote speech since then-Indianapolis Mayor Richard G. Lugar addressed the Republicans in Miami in 1972, will have 12 or so minutes in the spotlight. His speech, a Democratic consultant said, is not intended to bring down the rafters, as Texan Ann Richards did with her keynote speech in 1988. Rather, its aim is to convey this message: A new generation of Democrats is taking over, and we're serious, we're moderate, we're capable.

"This is a little like a high-wire act without a net," Bayh said after Clinton called earlier this month and asked him to deliver the keynote address. "It's very exciting."

Bayh grew up on politics. He remembers sitting in Harry S. Truman's living room in 1962 when his father, making his first run for the Senate, paid a courtesy call on the former president at his Missouri home. He remembers how his father (now an attorney in Washington) learned to master a crowd and how politics was the grist for daily conversation at home.

The only child of Birch and Marvella Bayh, Evan moved with his family to Washington after his father's election. He attended the exclusive St. Albans School there and had summer jobs that included construction work on Washington's Metro rail system. He was a good student, ambitious and not known as a frivolous fun-lover.

He attended Indiana University and graduated with a degree in business economics in 1978, a year before his mother died of cancer at the age of 46. At the University of Virginia (where he earned a law degree in 1981), he took a semester off to manage his father's 1980 campaign for a fourth Senate term. Quayle, then a congressman, won handily, riding the coattails of Ronald Reagan's landslide presidential victory.

The defeat left the young Bayh disillusioned and angry. He thought his father was far better qualified, had worked harder and had more to say than Quayle but, despite that, had been rejected by an electorate that was rejecting liberalism.

He said he eventually came to accept that that was how the political system worked. And his experience led him to think, he told an interviewer this year, that "although I was terribly disappointed, politics was something I might be interested in."

He came home to practice law in Indianapolis and in 1986 was elected secretary of state. He won despite cracks from critics that he had spent so little of his life in the state that he didn't have an Indiana driver's license. He soon set his sights on the governor's office.

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