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Old Liberal Guard Gets Its Moment for a Reason

Gore needs to rally core constituents in a way Bush does not. The message from the podium displays both the strains and successes of his and Clinton's steering of the party toward the center.


The procession of prominent liberals across the stage at the Democratic convention Tuesday night reflected a basic reality in the presidential campaign: Al Gore is having much more difficulty unifying his party base than George W. Bush.

Bush did not feel compelled to turn over a night of his convention to conservative icons--largely because polls show him drawing 90% or more of Republican voters. But Gore is attracting only about three-fourths of Democrats in most surveys--which helps explain why the program Tuesday night included two Kennedys, Jesse Jackson, Bill Bradley and the leaders of some of the party's most prominent liberal interest groups.

"They are doing the old guard," said Matthew Dowd, director of polling for the Bush campaign. "The first two nights of this thing are sort of aimed at their base."

In fact, Gore faces not one problem with his base but two. For months, he has been experiencing defections from opposite ends of his party.

Bush is attracting socially conservative Democrats, especially men, particularly in heartland battlegrounds such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. From the other end, Gore is suffering defections from liberals to Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, especially in states such as Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington and California, with a strong progressive tradition.

Much of Tuesday night's message appeared aimed at the liberals flirting with Nader. But many analysts believe that ultimately the larger and more lasting problem for Gore may be Bush's appeal to socially conservative Democrats and blue-collar independents. Dowd and Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, argue that younger blue-collar men, in fact, will be the "soccer moms" of this election--the decisive swing vote.

Few of those voters are likely to long remember Tuesday night's proceedings, if they saw them at all. But the decision to spotlight so many traditionally liberal voices does reflect the continuing problem Gore faces as he tries to construct a message that minimizes defection on the left without alienating centrist Democrats and independents.

"Gore has to consolidate the Democratic Party in a way that will help him be successful with swing voters," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

Words of Support for Centrist Drift

The message from the podium actually displayed not only the strains but also the successes that President Clinton and Gore have experienced as they have tried to steer their party toward the center.

Both Bradley, Gore's sole rival for the nomination this year, and Jackson trumpeted a traditional liberal agenda that many on the left feel Clinton and Gore have trimmed too much in their eagerness to court moderate voters.

But the keynote speaker, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, a young African American legislator, is actually emerging as a leader among centrist Democrats. And even Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the last lion of liberalism, made a passionate pitch for bipartisan cooperation.

"This party is changing," said Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "It's not complete, but this convention is another step in the transformation."

The largest messages from the convention support From's assessment. The party platform approved Tuesday was little less than a long valentine to Clinton's centrist "New Democratic" agenda. Gore has deviated little from that agenda in his campaign, and he's expected to highlight many of its central pillars--such as paying off the national debt--in his acceptance speech.

And in selecting as his running mate Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Gore elevated the chairman of the DLC, a group that has spent 15 years challenging traditional liberal positions. Lieberman, in fact, has been more willing than Clinton or Gore to deviate from party orthodoxy on such questions as education and affirmative action--so much that his nomination has drawn grumbles from some leading African American politicians.

Throughout his career, however, Gore has placed a higher priority than Clinton on maintaining good relations with the party base and its key interest groups. That instinct was apparent again Tuesday night in the prominent speaking slots granted to a series of liberal voices: Jackson, Bradley and Sen. Kennedy.

That lineup stood in stark contrast to the banishment of conservative leaders from the prime-time hours of the Republican convention as the Bush campaign targeted its message more unwaveringly at swing voters. Except for Dick Cheney's tart acceptance of the GOP vice presidential nomination, the Republicans mostly strived for a nonpartisan tone that might have passed muster at a League of Women Voters luncheon.

A Nod to Old-Time Partisanship

In granting prominent positions to such traditional Democratic voices as Jackson and Kennedy, Gore guaranteed a more partisan feel. Indeed, the podium Tuesday night rang with the traditional sort of convention invective that the Bush campaign virtually banned in Philadelphia.

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