Now it's Clinton's turn Chicago convention: The idea is to look and sound presidential in prime time.


REMEMBER THAT BIG "bounce" in the polls that Bob Dole received after his week in the spotlight at the Republican convention? Well, now it is Bill Clinton's turn to bounce back at the Democrats' week-long meeting in Chicago. While this convention will lack any hint of drama or suspense, it should have something only an incumbent president can produce -- newsworthy events tailored to keep all those television viewers back in Baltimore and elsewhere tuned in.

Gone are the rock 'em, sock 'em Democratic gatherings, known for their shrill protests and divisive rhetoric. That's the way it was the last time the party met in a troubled Chicago in 1968, when anti-war demonstrations spawned street riots. But these Democrats arrive in a revived Chicago united and optimistic. They are more focused than in past conventions on achieving their objective -- a second Clinton term and a return to Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Differences have been submerged out of fear of what a Dole presidency and a Gingrich Congress could do to Democratic programs.

Prime-time television now dictates the convention schedule and themes. This event will be every bit as carefully scripted as the Republicans' gathering, but not quite as dull. That's because Mr. Clinton finally has mastered the powers of the presidency to dominate the news, and he intends to do so this week. First there's the slow whistle-stop train tour to keep media attention on the president as he makes newsy pronouncements on crime, education and the environment -- just as he did this past week on tobacco, welfare and the minimum wage.

Then, in his acceptance speech, expect Mr. Clinton to toss out his own plans on modest tax cuts, particularly for home owners. Everything will look and feel very presidential. That's what his handlers want to convey.

Yet the critical moment comes when Mr. Clinton discusses his vision for the country in a second term. He needs to articulate some specific concepts for continuing incremental health-care reforms, renewing efforts to reduce the deficit and finally coming to grips with the runaway costs of the Medicare and Social Security programs. He's likely to deal with the first two topics, but not the third. Both parties are still in a state of denial about reining-in these critical entitlement costs.

This convention will be Bill Clinton's moment to shine. Unlike Bob Dole, he is most in his element making a campaign speech. It will be his chance to try to impress undecided voters, to remove some of the "character" doubts and to set himself apart from Mr. Dole, both in tone and in substance. Live and in prime time.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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