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With Gore Behind in Polls, Unease Runs Below Partying

Delegates acknowledge amid the celebrations that they have the serious task of helping to engineer a comeback.


Spotting the poll numbers in the newspapers outside their hotel rooms, many Democratic delegates must have felt a shiver--and it wasn't the hotel air-conditioning.

Al Gore's low numbers have been the cold reality underlying the relentless round of we're-the-greatest speeches and free food fests this week. Depending on the poll, their man is as much as 18 points behind, and after these party loyalists finish burbling about the last eight fat, happy years and how they just love the 2000 ticket, in their gut, they're worried.

On the convention floor, between the kibitzing and the cheering, "there is kind of an undercurrent that this is going to be tough," says Neil Cohen, a New Jersey state representative.

Once he and about 4,300 other partied-out delegates leave L.A., Cohen acknowledges they have a Sisyphean task ahead, "but we've taken enough cortisone that the pain isn't going to be there."

The risks implied by a Gore-Lieberman loss are never far from the surface. A Pennsylvania state representative worries about what would happen to reproductive rights if George W. Bush rearranges the Supreme Court. A county clerk from northern Colorado vows to remind folks back home what could happen to Social Security and health care if Gore loses. A Latino lawyer from Los Angeles has been having heated arguments with a partner in his firm who wants to support Ralph Nader, even if it means a Democratic loss.

"He says, 'Well, good, it'll send a message,' " says Michael Camunez. "I say, 'Well, great, it'll be a costly message and eight years of very painful, ugly policy from another Bush administration.' "

This anxiety may be low-level this week, but Camunez and others are concerned that by the time the delegates pack up to go home, the need to get on with grass-roots, vote-by-vote strategy will be inescapable.

"It's not going to be enough to put a lot of sentimental ads on television," he says.

At a gay-lesbian caucus meeting Wednesday with vice presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman, Charles McKain of San Diego says the gay community has real apprehension about a Gore loss. McKain's own big fear is that the differences between Gore and Bush will fade and people simply will reject Gore because the Texas governor appears just eminently more likable.

"These are real issues--the environment, reasonable gun control, choice," McKain said. "The problem is, the Republicans are going to say there's no difference. The risks are high. It's a big challenge to the Democrats."

Yvonne Vozinski's tiny town in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania can't raise enough tax money to fix the sewers or the streets. So Nanticoke, Pa., relies on a $400,000 community development grant from Washington for housekeeping, and Vozinski is worried her town will lose it.

"The Democrats always help support little towns," says Vozinski, sitting patiently on the convention floor awaiting the next speaker. "The GOP doesn't really care."

But often after a good cathartic release, the delegates raise the old Michael S. Dukakis cheer: In 1988 after a rousing convention in Atlanta, the former Massachusetts governor was 14 points ahead of then-Vice President George Bush. And every Democrat in Los Angeles remembers his crashing loss. An August lead is sometimes just a lead, the delegates point out.

It's summer, they say, as if they needed to remind anyone, sweating in nearly 100-degree weather. Nobody's paying attention. They're on vacation. The poll numbers may be misleading. When the kids are back in school, that's when the horse race begins.

Attending her first political convention at age 81, longtime activist Matilda Martinez Garcia of Tampa, Fla., says, "it will take some mobilization, oh yes," to counter the Bush campaign's emphasis on personality.

"We're going to have to get out there and work extra hard to sell the issues, because that's what it's all about--or what it should be," she says.

A lot of the uneasiness is pent up. The top Democratic officials are the best at keeping it in as they spin and spout the most upbeat of party lines. But it comes out, usually surprising even them during an impromptu scrum--what insiders call it when reporters are besieging them after some event.

At one session, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein blurted that she worried Democrats might take her state for granted and not work hard enough to win in November.

"I am concerned about it. I am very concerned," she said. "Amid all of the parties that are here, there is also a great seriousness."

Michigan delegates were enjoying their scrambled eggs at a breakfast Wednesday when Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. let slip that "there's a lot of anxiety hanging over this convention." No more longing for President Clinton, Biden admonished. Meanwhile, he said, "we pick up the morning paper, and we can't understand how a guy like George W. Bush can be leading a guy with the kind of caliber, experience and know-how as Al Gore."

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