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Big Shoulders and Little Differences in Chicago

Delegates: The crowd in the convention hall will be a lot more diverse and a bit more blue-collar. But income and education levels mirror GOP group in San Diego.


CHICAGO — If Chicago is the city of big shoulders, San Diego was the city of tight abs. No wonder the Democrats came here and the Republicans went there. On both scores, it was a perfect fit: A blue-collar town with smoke-filled steakhouses versus a seaside community of smokeless sushi bars.

In health-conscious San Diego, where the Republicans sounded a lot like Democrats, the city preened in the national limelight and delegates resembled the membership of a suburban country club: 90% were white, two-thirds were male, only 1% identified themselves as blue-collar workers.

In beer-and-a-shot Chicago, where the Democrats sound a lot like Republicans, the big draw is named Jordan, not Clinton, and delegates look as though they are part of the street crowd in any American city: 31% are black, Latino or Asian, half are women, 1 in 20 earns less than $30,000 a year.

But despite the differences in diversity and politics, the Democrats increasingly have come to resemble their Republican cousins. Their income levels are nearly as high, their education levels are about the same. The Democratic delegates, like their Republican counterparts, are among the privileged. The Democrats, of course, pride themselves on their diversity, which is maintained through a sort of fuzzy quota system. Their 4,289 delegates include more than 1,000 union members; 102 gay men and lesbians; two 17-year-olds; and 93-year-old Velma Jeter of Texas, a former Republican, who says, "I'll be involved as long as I can."

"Gimme a lemonade," said a woman who elbowed her way through Democratic delegates to the bar of Gene and Georgetti's, Chicago's venerable steakhouse. Told there wasn't any, she said, "Then pour me a double Jack, rocks, twist."

You'd never have seen that in San Diego. But if the Republicans in San Diego were portrayed as a Brooks Brothers crowd, it wouldn't be quite accurate to describe the Democrats as the polyester set. Like Chicago itself, the Democrats aren't quite as big-shouldered as they once were.

The stockyards have gone, and so have the lunch pails. Corporate money provides the meal ticket here, as it did in San Diego, and the Democratic delegates represent less of an American profile than their ethnic and gender diversity would indicate.

Thirty-five percent earn $100,000 or more a year--only a little less than the 39% of delegates at the Republican convention.

Forty-five percent have postgraduate degrees--exactly the same number as Republicans. Among all registered voters, the number is 11%. One in nine is a lawyer.

Still, there is no mistaking the politics of this crowd for the one that gathered in San Diego.

There, 5,000 people turned out for an antiabortion "faith and freedom celebration" in Balboa Park. They cheered Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, and a bevy of conservatives rose to their feet when House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said: "A Democrat talks about compassion, and he means the right to write a check to the IRS so they can hire another bureaucrat. A Republican means reaching out to help a neighbor."

"He said that?" huffed John Saylor of Pennsylvania, an alternate Democratic delegate here attending his ninth convention. "The Republicans' compassion for the working class and underprivileged is nonexistent. I don't think Democrats believe in a handout for everyone, but we believe in everyone getting a fair shake."

The "celebration of life" gathering at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, with Reed as the keynote speaker, drew only about 300 supporters, including born-again Republican John O'Reilly, who said: "I left the Democratic Party over this issue."

Four antiabortion Democratic congressmen showed up for the affair: Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota seemed eager to flee the podium as quickly as possible; Bart Stupak of Michigan delivered an impassioned address, while admitting that any platform fight over abortion would have left this small band of like-minded colleagues sure losers.

In San Diego, the Christian Coalition had the convention so wired that it counted 515 of the 1,990 delegates as rock-solid supporters. In Chicago, Reed said, about 100 of the delegates are staunchly antiabortion, although not all are Christian Coalition members.

Stupak said about 35 Democratic congressmen are firm abortion opponents. With the media outnumbering delegates 4 to 1 (it was 8 to 1 in San Diego because the Republicans had fewer delegates), hardly an event goes uncovered and hardly any comment goes unreported.

And with proceedings on the convention floor packaged, scripted and prime-timed, the only real action in Chicago, as in San Diego, is the pell-mell rush to the moderate center, with Republicans trying to convince voters that they aren't heartless and Democrats that they won't give away the farm.

Family values? Balanced budgets? Welfare reform? Who's against them?

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