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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Clinton Has to Walk a Fine Line in Final Speech

President's convention address needs to trumpet his achievements without downplaying the need for Vice President Gore to carry the torch forward.

August 13, 2000|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Clinton faces a Reaganesque mission when he makes his farewell speech as president Monday night to the bedrock of the Democratic Party during its convention at Staples Center.

But the roller-coaster ride of his presidency will cause him to make a less personal appeal than Ronald Reagan made 12 years ago and instead to build his speech on what he hopes will be a convincing argument that the results of his eight years in office justify electing Al Gore.

The weather couldn't have been steamier that night in August 1988 when Reagan took the podium at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. His mission: to transfer to his vice president, George Bush, the political passion that had fueled his presidency for two terms.

In a dramatic, emotional address, Reagan told Bush to "go out there and win one for the Gipper," a reprise of one of the best-known lines of Reagan's movie career.

But as Gore tries this week to demonstrate that he is his own man emerging from the president's shadow, instructions to win the race for Clinton just won't work.

Rather, Clinton is likely to deliver a speech that is a cross between a State of the Union address and a political call to arms, aides said Saturday.

As it is now structured, the first half would run through the state of the nation's economy, security and social well-being and how it got there, making the point, in the words of one Clinton assistant, that the progress wasn't by accident and that "the vice president was there all the way." The second half would focus on the current economic prosperity and what to do with the budget surplus.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said Clinton would use the speech to remind Americans that decisions during prosperity--about how to parcel out the fruits of the surplus, for example--are as important as decisions during hard times. This has been a frequent theme as the president seeks to persuade voters not to desert or take prosperity for granted and ignore the election.

"This is about reminding people about the success of the last eight years and the vice president's role in moving the country forward," Lockhart said.

The president's overall goal is to rebut what the Democrats are portraying as the central theme of the Republican convention two weeks ago: that the record-breaking economic growth of the last eight years occurred despite the policies implemented by the Clinton administration.

To be sure, on election day 1992 the country was already emerging, and strongly, from the recession that doomed the George Bush administration. But Clinton argues that his economic, fiscal and social policies are responsible for spreading and perpetuating the growth--and that Al Gore was there beside him at each turn.

Such speeches are sensitive political matters, posing this challenge: How much should the president, wrapping up eight years in office, focus on his own achievements and how much should he focus on his would-be successor?

Too heavy an emphasis on his own record can suggest the nominee had little to do with it; too much focus on the nominee may leave little opportunity to remind the country that it is generally doing pretty well, a major leg up for any incumbent party.

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