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Liberal Democrats take turn to dazzle

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 16, 2000


LOS ANGELES -- For one night, they turned back the clock to a time when liberal was not a dirty word.

Four Kennedys held a nostalgic family reunion, recalling John F. Kennedy's call for a "New Frontier" in 1960. The Rev. Jesse Jackson preached against racial and economic injustice like it was 1988. Bill Bradley lectured on health care, poverty and racial equality like it was still January.

And the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night brimmed with emotion as the liberal lions of past wars claimed their place in the party Bill Clinton remade for the moderate middle.

They lobbied for Vice President Al Gore and the future, but the applause and tears were for the memories rekindled by the speeches and black-and-white videos.

John F. Kennedy accepted the party's nomination here 40 years ago. His brother, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated here 32 years ago after winning the California primary.

The former president's daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, made a rare appearance on the national stage and said her father would have been proud to support Gore and running mate Joe Lieberman.

"Now it is our turn to prove that the New Frontier was not a place in time but a timeless call," she said. "Now we are the New Frontier."

At 42 years old, she is just a year younger than her father was when he accepted the nomination for president. But she long ceded the spotlight to her younger brother, John F. Kennedy Jr., who spoke at the 1988 convention and was killed in a plane crash last year.

On Tuesday night, Kennedy Schlossberg stepped into the spotlight to speak out for abortion rights and against gun violence, for "closing the racial divide" and against squandering the surplus. Then she introduced "Uncle Teddy".

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the brother of the slain president, praised Gore's bipartisan efforts to extend health care to more Americans. "And now I believe we have the greatest chance in my lifetime and the lifetime of our nation to secure the promise of health care for all."

Also speaking were Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the senator's son; and Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert Kennedy's daughter.

The Kennedys, Jackson and Bradley symbolized a different Democratic Party than the centrist version that Lieberman, the running mate and senator from Connecticut, is expected to describe in his speech tonight. While Clinton symbolically passed the torch to Gore Tuesday in Michigan, convention delegates heard from icons not ready to let go of long-held ideals.

Jackson and other speakers praised Gore for picking Lieberman, the first Jew on a national ticket. He argued that Democrats genuinely reflect the ethnic diversity and commitment to help the poor while Republicans only pretend to hold those values.

"We gather in Los Angeles -- home of the dreammakers who entice the world and home of the janitors and sanitary workers who clean up your world," Jackson said, before contrasting the Democratic convention with the Republican convention. "That was the inclusion illusion."

He recited a list of low performance rankings in Texas under Gov. George W. Bush and said the Republican should be judged not by his heart but by his budget priorities.

"Don't mess with Texas?" Jackson said, repeating the state's slogan. "Don't mess with New York and California. Don't mess with Illinois. Don't mess with America."

To some moderate Republicans and Democrats, the Kennedys and Jackson represent a liberal brand of Democratic politics whose time has past.

The only new face on stage Tuesday night was the keynote speaker, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., 30, of Tennessee. Ford was the first African-American to serve in the role since the late Barbara Jordan in 1976.

But some conservatives and moderates said they were comfortable with showcasing the more well-known liberals.

"I don't see it as getting off track," said Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon. "It's when we get to solving problems that the middle of the road comes in and brings the two sides together."

Tuesday night stood in stark contrast with how Republicans hid their most conservative members at their convention two weeks ago. The Rev. Jerry Falwell and Reps. Tom DeLay and Dick Armey of Texas were kept well away from prime time television in Philadelphia as the GOP sold its softer, compassionate image.

Democrats could not afford to keep their more liberal members locked up.

While the Republican base is firmly behind George W. Bush, Gore is still solidifying his support among Democrats. A Los Angeles Times poll published Tuesday found 95 percent of Republicans are backing Bush, but only 78 percent of Democrats are supporting Gore.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said Gore still is making progress in bringing Democrats home. "The Democratic convention is more successful in consolidating the base than we ever imagined," said Lake, who is tracking polls daily for Voter.com.

Gore also is forced to keep an eye on Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who appeals to more liberal Democrats and union members. While Nader registers just 3 percent in the Los Angeles Times poll, Lake said her tracking polls indicate he registers up to 8 percent in some key states.

In his speech, Bradley papered over the battles he had with Gore during the primaries. The former basketball star said he would campaign for the vice president, adding that "what we share is so much more than what we disagree on." Invoking Democratic legends from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, Bradley blasted Bush's compassionate conservative theme as he highlighted the 44-million Americans without health insurance and the millions of children living in poverty.

"We don't window dress diversity -- we're part of diversity," Bradley said, alluding to the Republican National Convention that featured a steady stream of minority speakers. "We don't just talk about prosperity -- we make it happen. Watch what we have always done, what our party values have always been . . ."

Bradley, Jackson, the Kennedys and other liberal speakers were expected to help lure back some of those disenchanted liberal Democrats Tuesday night.

"It's a big tent, and those people represent a significant part of our party and need to have their voices, too," said Craig Smith, a former Clinton-Gore campaign official. "You can't forget the foundation of the House you've built."

Some liberal Democrats have been feeling neglected. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., had refused to endorse Gore this week out of frustration with positions Lieberman had taken on tuition vouchers and affirmative action. She changed her mind after meeting Tuesday with Lieberman.

Bradley, who released his 359 delegates to Gore, said it is time to unite.

"It makes a lot of sense for people not to grumble, but move ahead and support the ticket because that is the way we are going to get closer to achieving the agenda that I laid out in my campaign," Bradley said in a television interview this week.

But Tuesday night's emphasis on the liberal wing of the party underscores the challenges facing Gore. The vice president is trying to fit into the Clinton mold of centrist policies that moderate and independent voters find appealing while reassuring liberals he has not deserted them.

"One day he thinks one thing and one day he thinks another," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said. "It's kind of hard to promote (Jackson and the Kennedys) as the party of the future."

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