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CAMPAIGN 2000

On Last Date, Clinton Wins Party's Embrace

August 15, 2000|GERALDINE BAUM and ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They swayed when he swayed, leaned forward when he slowed down, cheered when he needed them to. With that familiar sweet Southern storyteller's voice, he drew them in all over again. For all the heartbreak and betrayal, Bill Clinton's people let it go last night and enveloped him in uproarious affection.

"Rock it, baby, I love you very much!" Bobbie Steele, a commissioner from Cook County in Illinois, shouted at her man. "All right Bill! You're all right with me!"

Other orators this week will personify the party's chance for holding onto power in a way that Clinton no longer can. Joseph I. Lieberman will try to bring his party redemption from scandal; Al Gore will strive to convince the people he can keep propelling the vibrant economy.

Bill Clinton couldn't do that. But he could be Bill Clinton, and it was an Elvis moment.

As he eased across the stage to the microphone, laughing, waving, pounding a fist over his heart, Clinton showed that despite all else, he's a virtuoso politician who can make a crowd pulsate.

His speech was at times wonky, a detailed documentary of the last eight years, minus the bad stuff. But, on the floor, who cared?

"Thank you, Bill! Thank you, Bill!" they chanted.

These remain his people, 4,369 Democratic delegates, probably among the only Americans who would have been watching the convention on television this week if they weren't already in the hall.

"Even in this entire room, he makes you feel like you're the only one there," said Eileen Manning of Clifton, Va., trying to explain Clinton's touch. Manning became so emotional during the president's swan song that her friend Kym Crump from Virginia kept nudging her to make her stop crying. "He's so good at communicating emotion. It's not even a guy thing. I don't know how he does it."

Nancy Dick, a Florida delegate, estimated she's heard Clinton speak no fewer than 34 times. And she always comes away as she did last night, convinced that he could patent that charm.

" . . . He's a fleshed-out person," said the schoolteacher. "Over the last eight years I have come to realize that I'd rather have that kind of president because he is real to me."

Bonnie Powell, a retired banker from Bogalusa, La., also felt the old tug last night.

"I'm just as much for Clinton as I was in '92. He's one of the greatest presidents that's ever been," she said. But then she wagged her finger and added, "Other than the tragedy which should never have happened. . . .

"It won't ever be as exciting as it was in '92. Oh honey. Oh honey. He was the man." To some, Bill Clinton has been like Peck's bad boyfriend--brilliant, worthy, handsome. And at times an absolute scoundrel.

"People have been angry at him and have stayed angry at him," said Hilary Rosen, the recording industry's top Washington lobbyist who was in the hall last night as a delegate from Maryland. "But forgiveness comes with that pouting lip and those puppy dog eyes. This is a guy who bared his soul and we're ready to forgive him again tonight because he did so much for the country in eight years." In fact, last night if he hadn't been a president down to his last months, he might have been the candidate.

"If the president were running for a third term, I believe he would win in a heartbeat," said Dan Baker, vice mayor of Long Beach.

The Clinton admirers weren't bad-mouthing Al Gore, to whom they're now wedded. Still, they wished they had someone with Clinton's dazzle. Yvonne Vozinski suspects he'd stay if he could.

"This is an emotional night for him because he doesn't want to give it up," said Vozinksi, a delegate from Pennsylvania. "He loves the limelight. I can tell."

Yet, for all the heat in the hall last night, for all the ovations and rapturous applause, Rachel Binah understood it was time for him to step aside for Al Gore.

"If it was not so ridiculous, it would be amusing that people still think he's running for president," said Binah, who owns a bed and breakfast in Mendocino. "He's not. He's leaving."

After 44 minutes on the stage, Clinton said goodbye.

"Whenever you think about me, keep putting people first, keep building those bridges and don't stop thinking about tomorrow. I love you. And good night." Some wondered whether it was really the end, whether like Frank Sinatra who had farewell concerts every few years, Bill Clinton would find a way to come back.

*

Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this story.

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