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NEWS ANALYSIS

Democrats Take a Sweetness and Fight Approach

August 29, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

CHICAGO — When the Democratic National Convention last night twice burst into applause for Bob Dole, it should have been clear to everyone that as far as the usual convention goes, we're not in Kansas anymore.

In fact, the Democratic gathering this week is a tale of two conventions--and two contrasting visions of how Democrats can prosper at the polls this fall.

Before the national television networks begin broadcasting the proceedings, proud partisan Democrats like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt prowl the podium, pounding Republicans for putting Medicare "on the chopping block" and denouncing "the shameful record of the Gingrich revolution."

Then, when the television lights turn on in prime time, the party has generally turned over the proceedings to unifying moderates who praise examples of bipartisan cooperation, plant themselves squarely on the side of civility and even find time (as Sarah Brady did Monday night) to salute former President Reagan--surely a first for a Democratic convention.

In his keynote speech Tuesday night, Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh never mentioned GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, or even the word Republican--perhaps another first.

"Before 9 p.m., we're running the [liberal] 1984 convention," said Brian Lunde, the former executive director for the Democratic National Committee. "After 9 p.m., we're running the Clinton convention, which is not ideological, and sometimes not even political."

Praise and Punches

This is a controversial strategy--one that has sharply divided Democratic operatives--but one that also has strong parallels to the last successful presidential reelection effort--Reagan's in 1984.

For the first time, the subterranean early-evening convention streamed into prime time Wednesday night as Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, the Democratic National Committee chairman, and Vice President Al Gore delivered several sharp blows to Republicans. Gore in particular battered Dole for voting against a long string of programs during his career, from "the Peace Corps in the '60s [to] AmeriCorps in the '90s."

But even Gore and Dodd went out of their way to praise Dole as "a good and decent man" and declare that Democrats should "honor his service to America"--the lines that produced the shimmers of applause for the GOP nominee that appeared to surprise even the delegates themselves.

If that's not enough, rumors persist in Democratic circles that the video introducing Clinton tonight will also praise Dole.

John Buckley, the Dole campaign's communications director, insists that the Democratic convention's contrasting messages--like Clinton's campaign itself--mark an effort to cloak the party's liberal intentions beneath a blanket of staged moderation. "There is a parallel charade to what is going on at the convention and what is going on in the presidential campaign," he said.

Different Goals

But these schizophrenic messages--red meat at the dinner hour, warm milk after the kids are tucked into bed--also embody a division within the ranks of Democratic strategists. On one side are those plotting Clinton's reelection campaign, particularly pollster Mark Penn, strategist Dick Morris and media consultant Bob Squier.

Their view, several sources said, is that Clinton is strengthened most by an image of rising above politics and bridging partisan differences. As supporting evidence, they note research showing voters--particularly independents--yearn for politicians to reach beyond party lines. Moreover, they point out, many voters now recoil from partisan attacks, as Republicans discovered from focus groups they assembled to monitor their convention.

From this perspective flows such convention messages as First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's praising of Republicans and Democrats for working together to pass the recent legislation increasing the portability of health insurance, Brady's insistence that gun violence "is not a Republican or a Democratic problem" and the declaration from congressional candidate Carolyn McCarthy (a former Republican who spoke in prime time Tuesday) that the nation works best "when Democrats and Republicans come together to solve our problems."

On the other side of this internal argument are Democratic strategists closer to the party's congressional leadership. They argue the party will do best this fall if it rallies the Democratic base and inflames partisan divisions over the issues that tripped up the Republicans last winter--the GOP's proposals to significantly cut the rate of growth in Medicare, Medicaid, education and other programs.

Tough Talk

This is the thinking behind the barbed language in Gephardt's speech and Cuomo's broadside against "the rabid revolutionaries led by [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich." But those speeches both occurred safely before prime time, which meant, in practical terms, that they barely occurred at all.

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