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Democrats assemble in rare unity The party renowned for feuding now pauses to embrace Clinton; Carter among the missing; Grumbling is subdued as president's loyalists dominate convention; DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION; CAMPAIGN 1996


CHICAGO -- When the Democratic National Convention opens today, it won't be a typical gathering of Democrats. Instead, the hall will be packed with members of the Bill Clinton party.

Democrats are notorious for their internal battles. The last time they met in this city, 28 years ago, turbulence inside the hall and violence outside ripped apart the party. Not this week.

"This is the most united party that I've certainly seen in my lifetime. It's a genuine unity," says Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, general chairman of the Democratic Party. "It's not the fake unity you saw two weeks ago" at the Republican convention.

The warring Democratic factions -- old and new Democrats, pro-labor and pro-business wings, Northern liberals and Southern conservatives -- were shocked into at least temporary co-existence by the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.

The threat of losing the White House has served to mute the very deep, and very real, differences that remain -- most recently over welfare reform. But there are other reasons why this week's Democratic get-together will likely go down as the most feud-free in half a century.

The 8,500 Democrats meeting in Chicago's United Center aren't a true cross-section, Democratic officials concede privately. While a model of diversity (50 percent female, 19 percent minorities), the delegates and alternates were selected for one qualification above all others: their unquestioned loyalty to Clinton.

"Ninety-nine percent of them are Clinton delegates," confirms Rick Boylan, a Democratic National Committee staff member who oversaw the delegate selection.

Missing will be some prominent Democrats of the past, including Jimmy Carter, the party's only living former president, and 1984 nominee Walter F. Mondale. Stars from the activist, liberal wing, such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, have been given minimal roles, none in prime TV time.

Contributing to the aura of this as a personal, rather than a party, celebration was the decision of Clinton strategists to put the president on a high-profile train trip during the first three days of the convention. Videos of the Clinton journey will be beamed into the hall during the sessions.

Officials deny that Clinton's activities are upstaging the proceedings.

Also, Hillary Rodham Clinton will deliver a major speech tomorrow night, coming after, and effectively overshadowing, the keynote speaker, Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh.

And, in another break with tradition, Vice President Al Gore will highlight Clinton's accomplishments in a speech Wednesday, before he and Clinton are formally renominated that evening.

A confluence of party rules and circumstance has combined to produce this atypical crop of Democratic delegates.

Unlike the Republicans, Democrats give their presidential candidates veto power over the delegates representing them at the convention.

Since Clinton is the first incumbent Democrat in 60 years to run unopposed for re-nomination, the happy result, from the point of view of those in the White House, will be an arena jammed to the rafters with enthusiastic backers of the president.

The Clinton campaign has not only placed its people in the delegate seats, but, to the displeasure of some party veterans, it also has scooped up the prized guest passes used in the past to reward state and local Democratic activists with access to the convention hall. This year, they'll mainly go to Clinton contributors, administration officials and their friends.

Oddly enough, the greatest source of Democratic diversity -- and of potential opposition to Clinton this week -- may be found in the ranks of elected and party officials, who are automatic delegates and thus virtually the only ones Clinton does not control.

Many of them, including Dodd, have been highly critical of Clinton's signing of the welfare reform measure. The law, opposed by half the Democrats in Congress, ends the federal government's 60-year guarantee of payments to poor women and children.

But these same politicians who have spoken out against the president are also fearful that too much convention discord would only hurt the party's chances, and their own, in November.

"There is a certain discipline in that apprehension," says Don Fowler, chairman of the Democratic National Convention.

With no threat of a rebellion inside the hall, Democratic planners have been free to exercise a looser form of control than their GOP counterparts.

Delegates to the Republican convention in San Diego, who included supporters of Bob Dole's defeated rivals, were more conservative than the image the party projected from the podium, and Dole was forced to make concessions to them on issues such as abortion and immigration.

Among the speakers at this week's convention will be several Democratic officials who oppose the party's staunch support of abortion rights, including Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Reps. David E. Bonior of Michigan and Tony P. Hall of Ohio.

Also on the program, though not in prime time, is the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. He has sought to downplay expectations that he would use the opportunity to bash the president and instead has pointed up the areas in which they agree, including Clinton's support for increasing the minimum wage, restoring democracy in Haiti and achieving racial justice at home.

"I have to make a political choice based upon [Clinton's] cumulative score against Dole's cumulative score," Jackson says. "My look at the choice is far beyond Clinton's decision about welfare. It's also about the Congress. If you support Dole, you're eventually supporting Newt Gingrich and the Contract" with America.

"The maturity of our focus must take us over this impasse," he ZTC says. "In '68, the issue was warfare [in Vietnam]. We didn't make it over, and we lost the bigger picture. Now the issue is welfare. We must have the strength to hold on, while [Clinton] struggles to salvage some humane dimensions of this bad bill."

Rank-and-file Democrats offer similar arguments about the need to take a pragmatic approach.

"As an openly gay man, I am not happy about everything this president has done but I'll take the 90 percent I can get and be damn happy," says Rick Stafford, a Minnesota liberal who remembers opposing the ticket that included homestate hero Mondale at the 1980 convention because it wasn't "pure enough."

Still, the former state party chairman isn't entirely happy about the undemocratic nature of the Democratic convention.

"Is it a celebration for the party, or is it a celebration for the candidate?" he asks. "Some of us are concerned that it's becoming too much top-down."

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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