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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Party Brings Its Own Stars to L.A.

Democrats hope to pull in TV viewers with big-name officeholders and high-tech gadgets. Panel discussions, high-profile entertainment and video tributes are also planned.

August 13, 2000|JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a C-SPAN camera crew in tow, Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Convention Committee, strode into the nerve center in a converted Staples Center locker room. He let the crew roll tape as he bantered with organizers, prepped for a press event showcasing the podium design, even when he checked on volunteers painting signs designed to look homemade by delegates.

McAuliffe is a fund-raising master and has never been shy about touting his success at dialing for dollars. But in offering the press a how-the-sausage-is-made look at last week's convention preparations, he tried to create a counterweight to the polished, made-for-TV feel of the GOP's gathering in Philadelphia two weeks ago.

"There's no script here," McAuliffe said. "We sit and talk ideas out. With the Republicans, you just saw an end product."

Still, the Democratic event is far from unscripted. Even some of the high-tech gadgets the Democrats are trumpeting as evidence of their openness are designed for TV. The podium, for example, can be hydraulically lowered all the way to the floor, which will force television cameras to show cheering delegates directly in front of the speakers. When the delegates vote, they will do it on computers, forcing the cameras to convey a tech-savvy image.

Just like Republicans, the Democrats have designed their schedule to appeal to television, although in a wholly different fashion. The Democrats plan onstage panel discussions (a staple of George W. Bush's campaign stops), slick video tributes to regular-Joe Americans and high-profile entertainment. A key difference is that the Los Angeles convention will spotlight governors, senators and House members.

For their gathering, the Republicans pulled together a list of speakers whose diversity was not reflected by the delegates they addressed. Among those on the podium were a Latino small-business owner, an Asian American former Peace Corps chief and a onetime welfare mother.

In contrast, the Democratic lineup is dominated by the party's traditional Beltway cast, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Moreover, the party has given speaking slots to abortion rights supporters and gay rights advocates, whose most vocal GOP opponents stayed out of the limelight in Philadelphia.

Democrats say their speaker slate is intended for a more substantive, policy-oriented convention. Analysts also suggest it is designed to rally the party faithful to Vice President Al Gore at a crucial moment in the campaign when his advisors believe more voters will begin to tune in to the White House race. At the same time, the slate will seek to market Gore's individual biography at a time when Bush is eager to wrap him in President Clinton's personal scandals.

Each night is scheduled to feature an "American Dialogue" panel of "working people" moderated by an elected Democrat, mostly focusing on the issues on which the Democrats believe Gore's positions have the most appeal with voters: the economy, health care and gun violence. Thursday's panel will focus on Gore himself, with family and friends from Tennessee talking about his childhood and others talking about him in Vietnam and during his years in Congress.

But just like the GOP, the Democrats are seeking to command air time for more than their nominee. Party strategists have transformed the Staples Center gift shop into their internal media operation, where they can link Democratic senators, delegates or other Gore surrogates with local television anchors and radio stations around the country.

Just as the Democrats built a broadcast operation in a Philadelphia union hall to respond to GOP speeches, the Republicans have purchased five hours a day of satellite time to beam interviews with their party's surrogates from the rooftop of an office building across from the convention hall.

At the GOP event, "we felt like, by reaching out and perhaps demonstrating our desire to be more inclusive, that we were communicating to the public a very positive message," said Terry Holt, a GOP spokesman. "The Democrats have a very different political imperative. They're still suffering from a lot of self-doubt. They have to please all the glitterati in their party."

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