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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Unlike GOP, Democrats to Revel in the Details

Party leaders believe Republicans dropped the ball at their convention by stinting on specifics. They plan an event that features issue-crammed 'town hall' meetings.

August 14, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

At the Republican National Convention four years ago, Bob Dole accepted the presidential nomination with a sentimental speech offering "a bridge" to a nobler past.

Two weeks later, President Clinton swiped the imagery for his own acceptance speech, making a bridge to the future the metaphorical mantra of his reelection romp.

This week in Los Angeles, Democrats sense a similar opportunity.

Convinced George W. Bush erred by stinting on specifics, Democrats hope to capitalize on the feel-good Republican convention by giving their gathering a weightier and more issue-oriented tone.

Al Gore promises a Thursday night acceptance speech chock-full of detail. And throughout the week, the convention centerpiece will be a novel series of panel discussions on topics ranging from education to health care to kitchen-table economics. Mixing "Oprah" and C-SPAN, the nightly forums are to serve as sort of a tutorial break from the fluffier and more celebratory fare typical of conventions.

"One of the things that is clear over the last decade is an increasing desire on the part of voters to be taken seriously and to be given specifics about issues," said Carter Eskew, Gore's chief strategist. "Bush's convention was all gauze with very little discussion of issues. 'Info-tainment' without the 'info.' That leaves us a very large opening."

Bush surged in polls immediately after his convention, but he appears to have failed to completely make his case with many independent and swing voters. Surveys and anecdotal evidence showed these uncommitted voters, while impressed with the Texas governor, were not convinced he could deliver on his agenda. The main reason cited was a lack of specifics.

Even some Republicans worry Bush may have squandered an important opportunity by not presenting a more detailed case for change at a time of relative peace and record prosperity.

"The Achilles' heel of the Republican convention was that it was short on detail and long on sentiment," said Marshall Wittman, a political analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "The Democratic challenge now is to say that sentiment alone is insufficient and to provide substance instead."

William Kristol, publisher of the Weekly Standard, a journal of conservative opinion, agreed. "The Republican convention was nice but light," he said. "Nice is good. But light is risky."

To a striking degree, the conventions reflect the personalities as well as political strategies of the presidential rivals.

Bush has never been much of a detail man, as his campaign has shown. The GOP nominee has promised to fix Social Security, build a missile defense system, even bring down the price of oil. But he has left a lot of the details for later--after he takes office.

"He has a theory that as long as people like him more than Gore, he's going to win," said a GOP strategist who occasionally advises the Bush campaign. "He's basically convinced that [President] Clinton's shadow will hang over the election and it will come down to trust and character and likability."

That, the strategist said, is why so much effort was devoted in Philadelphia to making the party seem warmer.

Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, insisted the notion of a content-light convention was "complete and total nonsense."

Fleischer said that, from Bush's "specific call to lower the top income tax rate from 39.6% to 33% to his call to convert the Section 8 rental program into a program [to help] low-income Americans [purchase] homes to his discussion of his $5-billion reading initiative, our convention was detailed, issue-oriented and interesting."

Yet all those programmatic details were left to Bush's acceptance speech at the close of the four-day convention. In contrast, Democrats say they will slather substance throughout their program.

That too reflects the personality of their candidate, a notorious grind who found refuge in marathon, issue-crammed "town hall" meetings when his campaign began listing last summer.

The convention's nightly panel discussions are intended to replicate those give-and-take events, featuring some of the people the candidate encountered on his way to winning the nomination.

"We always planned to be heavily biographical, knowing we have a candidate who needs to be introduced to people in his own right," said Tad Devine, a Gore strategist heavily involved in convention planning. "We also planned a big discussion of issues. But after Philadelphia, we're double-convinced that's the right approach."

As Gore supporters unceasingly point out, surveys show that voters tend to be closer to the Democrats on many issues, from gun control to abortion rights to paying off the national debt. Their hope is that come November, policy will trump personalities and give the election to Gore.

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