NEW YORK -- Bill Clinton stepped to the head of the Democratic ticket and a big lead in the polls last night in the fast-changing 1992 presidential contest.
The Arkansas governor personally claimed his party's nomination, coming to the convention floor amid rising Democratic optimism about the chance for victory in November.
Comparing himself to John F. Kennedy, Mr. Clinton recalled how in 1960 "another young candidate who wanted to get this country moving again came to the convention to say a simple thank you." At 45, Mr. Clinton becomes the youngest nominee of a major party since Kennedy, who was 43 at the time of his nomination.
Only hours before, the campaign of independent challenger Ross Perot was rocked by the resignation of its director. Edward Rollins, who managed President Ronald Reagan's successful 1984 re-election campaign, quit in a dispute over the direction of the Texas billionaire's increasingly troubled, and still unannounced, candidacy.
The dynamics of the '92 race have shifted dramatically in recent days as Mr. Clinton gained impressive new public acceptance, much of it at Mr. Perot's expense.
Two national polls released yesterday showed Mr. Clinton with a clear lead for the first time.
The Arkansas governor was the choice of 45 percent of likely voters to President Bush's 28 percent and Mr. Perot's 20 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post survey. In a New York Daily News-Hotline poll, he led Mr. Bush 40 percent to 31 percent, with Mr. Perot at 20 percent.
Mr. Clinton's 17-point lead matches that of 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis around the time of his nomination. Mr. Dukakis went on to lose the popular vote to Mr. Bush in November by 7 percentage points.
In a television interview, Mr. Clinton said he "would not necessarily be in deeper trouble" if Mr. Perot decided not to become a candidate, and cited poll numbers that he said showed the Texas businessman taking more votes from him than from Mr. Bush.
Without Mr. Perot in the race, "I would be the sole beneficiary of the famous Republican hit machine. And all the bile and the venom and the negativism that they can spew out would all be directed against me and not some against Mr. Perot," Mr. Clinton said on CBS.
Last night, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo delivered a powerful nominating address for his fellow governor, terming Mr. Clinton the "our only hope for change from this nation's current disastrous course." His speech placed the imprimatur of the party's old, Northern liberal wing on the Democrats' new generation, all-Southern ticket.
The New Yorker's speech was the centerpiece of an evening-long effort to begin reintroducing Mr. Clinton to the nation, and to try to soften the negative image that has led many in his own party to question his honesty.
Mr. Cuomo, who has himself raised doubts about Mr. Clinton in the past, lavishly praised the nominee as a survivor whose "extraordinary strength of character" had helped him come back from adversity.
"Bill Clinton has always been driven by the desire to lift himself above his own immediate concerns, to give himself to something larger," he declared. "Bill Clinton has worked to relieve other people's discomfort because he remembers his own struggle."
Mr. Cuomo concluded his remarks with a peroration that showed why he is regarded as one of the best speakers in public life today. Recalling the parades held throughout the country to celebrate the military victory in the Persian Gulf, he expressed a wish that similar marches might be held some day to mark the rebuilding of the American economy that a President Bill Clinton would bring about.
tTC "So step aside, Mr. Bush. You've had your parade!" Mr. Cuomo thundered. "It's time for change. It's time for someone smart enough to know, strong enough to do, sure enough to lead: The Comeback Kid. A new voice for a new America."
The roll call of the states, which followed, was largely a formality. Mr. Clinton's delegate majority had been assured for months, and all his former rivals, save one, had released their delegates.
Ohio put Mr. Clinton over the top at 10:52 p.m. The final tally was 3,367 votes for Mr. Clinton, 594 for Jerry Brown, 209 for Paul E. Tsongas and 77 for other candidates.
Mr. Clinton, celebrating with members of the Arkansas delegation at a party in the basement of Macy's flagship store, across the street from the convention hall, hugged his daughter, Chelsea, 12, and kissed his wife, Hillary.
As confetti rained down on the convention floor, the delegates chanted "We want Bill" and followed Mr. Clinton's progress to the hall on the huge television screen that serves as backdrop for the podium. Mr. Clinton thanked "magnificent Mario Cuomo for putting my name in nomination tonight."
Noting that convention rules prevented him from accepting last night, Mr. Clinton told the delegates: "I want to thank you all for being here and loving your country and tell you that tomorrow night I will be the comeback kid."
Earlier, Mr. Brown, the lone holdout, finally got his chance to address the convention last night. The former California governor, who finished a distant second in the primaries, used a loophole that allowed him to speak in support of his own nomination.
"I intend to fight for this party tonight, tomorrow and every year. . . . As we join together, no obstacle will stand in our way," said Mr. Brown, never mentioning Mr. Clinton by name. He has yet to endorse Mr. Clinton.
Two other defeated rivals, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and former Massachusetts Senator Tsongas, also spoke.
Mr. Kerrey, who won the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, praised Mr. Clinton's resilience in the primaries.
"I watched him take the heat, and stand up to it, again and again," said the Nebraskan, who was passed over as a potential Clinton running mate. "I saw his strength as he weathered the storms. I can tell you that he is genuine."
Mr. Tsongas, the third-place finisher, delivered the sort of stern lecture for which his candidacy became known, repeating much of his primary stump speech and hailing Mr. Clinton's support for abortion rights and gay rights, the environment and child welfare programs.
"Let us choose the path of generational responsibility, and then letus work to elect Bill Clinton and Al Gore to the White House," Mr. Tsongas said.
The latest poll numbers, showing an unexpectedly large, 22-point convention "bounce" for the Democratic ticket, helped feed an air of self-congratulation that has grown steadily among party leaders this week as they neared the end of their most harmonious national convention in years.
As if to ensure that the winning spirit would not be jinxed, the party's last two (losing) presidential nominees -- Mr. Dukakis and former Vice President Walter F. Mondale -- were allowed to do no more than wave from the balcony as they were introduced to the crowd last night. Totally ignored was former Sen. George McGovern, the 1972 nominee, who was also present in the hall.
At tonight's closing session, the delegates will ratify Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. as the vice-presidential nominee, and hear ,, his acceptance speech. Then comes the pivotal moment of the convention -- Mr. Clinton's acceptance speech, which aides have described as the most important of his political life.
Mr. Clinton remained largely out of sight, rewriting his speech and watching the proceedings on television. He held a morning meeting with black South African leader Nelson Mandela, who was in town to address the United Nations.
Last evening's program included a tribute to the late Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 24 years ago. Among those in attendance for the presentation, which included an eight-minute film about his life, were his widow, Ethel; his eldest daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Clinton delegate from Maryland; and his niece Caroline, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, greeted with a standing ovation by the crowd inside Madison Square Garden, used his speech to compare Mr. Clinton to his late brother.
"I could say many things here in support of Bill Clinton," he said. But there is one thing that matters most. He has sought to heal, to oppose hate, to reach across the divides and make us whole again."