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Clinton will set tone, but how?

The president will be center stage as the Democratic convention opens, and his remarks will set the mood.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 14, 2000

LOS ANGELES -- When President Clinton takes a victory lap tonight, handing off the baton will be tricky.

The outgoing president remains the center of attention at the opening of the Democratic National Convention even as party leaders labor to turn the spotlight toward Vice President Al Gore and his nomination. Clinton's long-awaited speech on national television this evening will set a tone for the week-long infomercial, and there is an element of suspense about whether he will mention his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Some influential Democrats, including general chairman Edward Rendell, said they expect Clinton to refer to the affair and ask voters not to hold Gore accountable for his personal misconduct. With Republicans regularly alluding to the scandal during their convention two weeks ago with frequent references to morals and integrity, Rendell said, Clinton should offer an answer.

There is some indication that the scandal has been on the president's mind.

Last week at a church in Illinois, Clinton talked of how he is "in the second year of a process of trying to totally rebuild my life from a terrible mistake I made."

But Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart said Sunday that no one should expect Clinton to apologize again tonight. He said the Illinois appearance should not have been viewed as a preview for the convention speech.

"Absolutely not," Lockhart said. "I believe the president believes he has adequately dealt with that issue and has moved on, and the country has moved on."

The plan for tonight has been for Clinton to review the accomplishments of the past eight years and emphasize what is at stake in this year's race between Gore and George W. Bush, he said.

Clinton's speech is expected to be about as long as President Reagan's 1988 farewell convention address, which lasted just under an hour. Reagan's passing of the torch to George Bush was a typically graceful, "win one for the Gipper" performance by an older president comfortable with the prospect of retirement.

This swan song is more difficult, complicated by scandal and Clinton's wistfulness about the impending end to his second term. He has often said he would run for a third term if the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution didn't prohibit it.

Instead, Clinton spent part of Sunday at Barbra Streisand's home, raising an anticipated $10-million for his presidential library in Arkansas. Lockhart was vague about the president's plans after he leaves office beyond overseeing the library project.

Clinton, ever the political junkie, made a rare acknowledgement Sunday that Gore is trailing the Texas governor.

"We can turn around these polls," the president told activists and donors at a brunch in Malibu. "But it's not the work of a day. It's going to take every day between now and November."

This week's convention is viewed by party activists as the start of the turn-around, and they expect it to contrast with the Republican convention.

In Philadelphia, the Republicans sent a parade of minorities to the stage and kept most members of Congress hidden away. Until Bush and his running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, took the stage there was little talk of Gore and the Democrats.

The Democrats will spotlight some regular people, too. But they will also keep tradition and rely heavily on elected officials, including Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, to make their case. They contend this convention will focus more on facts and less on rhetoric, and there will be straight-forward comparisons between the policy positions of the respective political parties and their candidates.

Whether that will make for good political theater is uncertain. Conventions are traditionally little more than pep rallies, but this one will feature panel discussions on issues ranging from education to health care.

"It's not just rhetoric," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew. "It's a record."

Clinton will begin laying out that record tonight, recounting the administration's accomplishments and highlighting Gore's role in achieving them. Much of the focus is expected to be on the booming economy and the federal budget surplus. While opinion polls indicate Gore is getting little credit for the economic prosperity, Lockhart said voters "very much understand the role getting America's fiscal house in order has played."

This year alone, Clinton has raised $50-million for the DNC and another $50-million for congressional candidates. His high-profile in California this weekend has brought some criticism, and scheduled appearances on morning talk shows today were canceled in an effort to steer attention back to Gore.

Lockhart said he expects Clinton to move more to the background after the convention, although he will still raise money for the party.

"Ultimately," he said, "this will be about where Al Gore says he wants to go and where Bush says he wants to go."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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