Democrats take stage in harmony Convention opens with emotional show of unity, moderation; 'Four more years'; Actor Reeve, tribute to late Ron Brown add poignant notes; DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION; CAMPAIGN 1996

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- With President Clinton riding high in the polls, the Democratic Party opened its 1996 convention yesterday in a show of celebrity and unity.

The words and images from the podium, designed to send a message of moderation, were reinforced by Clinton's campaign-trail criticism of Republican efforts to block gun control.

Alma Brown, widow of former Democratic Party chairman and Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, delivered a poignant tribute to her late husband, who was killed in a plane crash in Bosnia last spring.

And two Republicans, former White House press secretary James S. Brady, crippled in a 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, and his wife, Sarah, drew tears from the delegates as they slowly made their way to the microphone.

"Jim, we must have made a wrong turn. This isn't San Diego," said Mrs. Brady, a gun control advocate, to a standing ovation.

"The National Rifle Association said that seven days, or even seven hours, was just too long to wait to buy a handgun," she said, to scattered boos at the mention of the NRA.

"Well, listen, our family can tell the gun lobby a little bit about inconvenience, and the despair and the pain that can result from a gunshot wound," she said.

Plea for medical spending

But the emotional high point was an appearance by paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, who appealed for increased government spending on medical research.

"I have to begin with a challenge to the president. Sir, I've seen your train go by. And I think I can beat it," said the wheelchair-bound Reeve who played "Superman" in the movies. Reeve was injured in a horse-riding accident last year.

"President Roosevelt showed us that a man who could barely lift himself out of a wheelchair could still lift this nation out of despair," said Reeve, who spoke for 18 minutes in a slow, soft voice.

"I believe, and so does this administration in the most important principle that FDR taught us: America does not let its needy citizens fend for themselves," he continued, drawing the cheering audience to its feet. "America is stronger when all of us take care of all of us."

He was followed by Clinton, broadcast live from Toledo, Ohio, who thanked Reeve and the Bradys and told the delegates his campaign train is on its way to Chicago.

"Stay with us, and we'll be there," the president said.

Democrats are energized by the latest polls, which show Clinton with about a 12 percentage point advantage over Republican nominee Bob Dole. Clinton campaign strategists hope this week's convention will boost that lead by at least another four or five points.

The crowd in the United Center, home of pro basketball's Chicago Bulls, buzzed noisily through most of the six-hour program.

One speaker, actor Edward James Olmos, star of the movie "Stand and Deliver," whistled three times for quiet during his remarks in a futile effort to hush the audience.

Gore appearance

The first real excitement of the evening came when Vice President Al Gore made a brief appearance on the convention floor before last evening's session, drawing a mob of well-wishers and setting off chants of "Four more years."

First lady Hillary Clinton also visited the hall, after first being beamed into the hall, TV-reporter style, from just outside.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, welcoming delegates to the first Democratic convention here since the violence-scarred 1968 edition, acknowledged the clashes that shattered the party that year.

"America was at war abroad, and at home our party and our convention reflected the deep divisions of those difficult times," said Daley, whose father was the mayor then and was condemned for encouraging the police riot that summer. "Tonight we gather in Chicago not to revisit the old battles but to renominate a popular and successful president."

'Not just a show'

House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt and others sought to draw contrasts with the Republican convention in San Diego, and their repeated mentions of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's name drew boos from the delegates.

Gephardt insisted the convention was "not just a show for television" but the final hour of the program was scripted to attract the largest possible audience.

Instead of showcasing elected officials, the Democratic producers brought out a parade of non-politicians, including Mike Robbins, a Chicago police officer wounded in the line of duty, and Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, heralded by the throbbing bass tones of the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" and a laser light show.

Delegates waved Clinton-Gore signs promoting the administration's achievements, including raising the minimum wage, putting more police on the street and enacting an assault weapons ban.

Earlier, delegates clapped to the sounds of a gospel choir, danced the Macarena during musical breaks and watched live views of Clinton's campaign train, projected onto huge screens suspended above the podium.

In Toledo, Ohio, surrounded by a sea of police officers, their gold badges glinting in the bright sun, the president emphasized his credentials as a crime fighter.

Yesterday's events aboard the 21st Century Express were closely coordinated with the managers of the convention in Chicago.

White House officials had promised that the president would unveil bold new crime-fighting initiatives. When those ideas were made public yesterday by Clinton, they proved to be four proposals that the administration has previously supported.

They were:

Expanding the Brady law to include on the prohibited list would-be handgun buyers with misdemeanor convictions for spousal abuse. But this provision is already state law in California, passed the Senate unanimously earlier three weeks ago -- and had the backing of Clinton's Justice Department at that time.

Changing the definition of "cop-killer" bullets from one based on the materials those bullets are made of to a performance-based HTC standard to ensure they can't pierce Kevlar vests. This push, too, originated in Congress with Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer of New York, and the president called for its adoption last summer. Moreover, White House domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed conceded that such bullets are neither marketed nor manufactured yet.

Revising the 1990 law championed by President George Bush that made it a crime to possess a firearm within 1,000 feet of a schoolyard. The Supreme Court overturned this law, saying the federal government had overreached. The Clinton administration is trying to revive the law with a new requirement that federal prosecutors demonstrate to judges and juries that the firearm in question is related to interstate commerce.

Tightening the language of another anti-gun statute in order to circumvent a Supreme Court decision making it more difficult to add five years to the term of a drug trafficker or violent criminal who uses a firearm in the commission of a crime. That law has already been used in the prosecution of some 13,000 criminals.

But if the ideas are not necessarily new, they do have the backing of law enforcement officials. In Columbus, Franklin County Sheriff James Karnes introduced the president as "law enforcement's good friend" to cheers from the crowd."

When it was his turn to speak, Clinton mentioned the fate of Democratic House members voted out of office in 1994, in part because they supported the Brady bill and the assault rifle ban.

"A lot of good people gave up their seats in Congress," he said turning and pointing at the officers, "so these people could be safer."

Pub Date: 8/27/96

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