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Liberals Slide Into Rearview Mirror

Democratic speakers, principally Lieberman, return focus to centrist voters that they deem necessary for victory.


After a nostalgic two-night fling with President Clinton and liberal heroes of its past, the Democratic National Convention tried to settle down Wednesday with the centrist "new Democrat" ticket it has chosen for its future.

The Democrats tried to pirouette gracefully toward the center, to begin accomplishing their most pressing task: selling their presidential ticket to "swing" voters as reassuringly moderate.

Until now, the party has showcased its favorites, from President Clinton to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, for rousing speeches that brought delegates--a naturally partisan, predominantly liberal audience--to their feet.

But Wednesday night, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Al Gore's choice as vice presidential nominee, shouldered the job of wooing moderate Democrats and independents, the voters who hold the balance of power in November's election.

Lieberman pointedly noted several issues on which his positions tend toward the center of his party and cheerfully acknowledged that he had sometimes differed with Gore.

Staking a Democratic claim to a traditionally Republican issue, Lieberman said he and Gore want "to renew the moral center of this nation."

"No parent should be forced to compete with popular culture to raise their children," he said.

It wasn't only Lieberman. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, a leader of the party's liberal wing, promised new moderation if voters make him speaker of the House. "I promise you that if we win a majority, we will be humble about our beliefs and listen to the beliefs of others."

Lieberman's appeal for decency and Gephardt's vow of humility drew few cheers from the floor. But the audience for Wednesday's session wasn't so much the Democratic faithful as the Democratic (and independent) unfaithful--voters who seem inclined to vote for Republican George W. Bush.

"If you want to be a majority party, you have to appeal to a coalition, and that means appealing to independents and moderates," said Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, one of the party's rising centrist leaders. "That's why you'll hear Lieberman and Gore emphasizing issues that appeal to both the base and the center."

The "base"--confirmed Democrats, including liberal and black voters--were the main target of the first two nights of convention proceedings.

"We need to mobilize our core constituency to vote," Bayh explained, "especially at a time of low turnout, when each vote is more valuable."

But that emphasis may have exacted a price. A bipartisan poll released Wednesday showed that support for Gore among conservative Democrats dropped by 10 percentage points overnight, a possible reaction to the convention's parade of liberal figures.

"They walked into the convention very unified and, in the process, drove away a lot of conservative Democrats," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

The poll found Bush leading Gore by 11 percentage points overall, 48% to 37%--a margin essentially unchanged since the beginning of the convention. The margin was even higher among independent voters: 21 percentage points.

That daunting number suggests that the Democrats' pirouette toward the center is belated.

In Philadelphia, George W. Bush's Republicans spent all four days of their convention portraying themselves as moderates; leaders of the party's social conservative wing were largely banished from the stage.

Now the Democrats are trying to perform the same feat in only two days.

Paradoxically, however, Gore and Lieberman have one thing going for them: disunity in the party.

The flashes of alarm about Lieberman from traditional liberal constituencies--black leaders, teacher unions, the entertainment industry--could actually help Gore by showing moderate voters that he isn't just an old-style Democrat, some strategists say.

"These arguments are a good thing," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.).

"I think there's a fighting moment in everybody's campaign where the candidate rises above the political agenda and becomes a front-runner by doing what people weren't sure he would do," Breaux said. "Voters like to see a moment that shows the candidate is not a captive of any special interests."

A Gore advisor, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed.

"If Hollywood liberals are complaining, that's fine," he said. "We kind of enjoy that."

And some other liberals are still complaining. At a meeting Wednesday afternoon, they said the Gore-Lieberman ticket has strayed too far into the middle of the road.

"I long for the day when we are inside the convention delivering the keynote and most of the corporate interests are outside protesting," said Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Illinois, the Rev. Jackson's son. "This should be the last convention we come to where our position is not represented on the ticket."

This Democratic Party is a lonely place for a liberal, he said. "Sometimes I feel like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest."

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