Democrats' big hurdle: Reagan popularity

The Philadelphia story, as written by Democratic politicians gathered here for the last few days, is one more of mood than accomplishment.

The participants, many of them state political leaders, obviously had a good time. And they may have provided the party and party candidates everywhere with a lift simply by coming together and giving the Reagan administration a good verbal going-over.

But the tissue-thin nature of activities here was clearly illustrated when the news of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.'s resignation became known.

It was a moment of what Democratic planners had hoped to be high drama. Several of the Democratic presidential hopefuls -- except for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who was to come later -- were on display. Some of the speeches - particularly that by former Vice-President Walter Mondale - evoked much applause. Others said to be eyeing the race for the White House in 1984 were Sens. Alan Cranston of California, Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, John Glenn of Ohio, and Gary Hart of Colorado,

But it was clear from the chatter about Mr. Haig among the nearly 1,000 conference participants in the audience that the tumultous events in Washington were overshadowing what Democratic planners had hoped would be the high point of the show here.

What the Democrats did and did not do here:

* They made it clear that they will run against Reaganomics and what they insist is a recession caused and nourished by Reagan.

No platform came out of the mini-convention. Indeed, the meeting had been renamed a ''national party conference'' in order to avoid the debate -- and the expression of dissent -- that is part of a convention putting together planks on controversial issues. But the thrust of the resolutions passed here was that the Democrats were taking dead aim at President Reagan's tax cuts and defense buildup.

The Democratic participants made it clear that they saw this approach, together with castigating the President for high unemployment, high interest rates, and the massive budget deficit, as the road to a big Democratic political victory in the fall.

* The Democrats went out of their way to avoid criticizing the President per se. The message wasn't shouted from the stage. But the word was all around: Don't say anything bad about this popular President lest you antagonize the voters. Our own polls tell us Mr. Reagan is still very much liked by the American people. Thus, the Democrats will go into the fall campaign with what some participants here concede is a rather ambiguous argument: Vote Democratic, they will be saying, even though you may still like the President and still want him to succeed.

* The Democrats did not come up with any clear-cut alternatives to Reagan's economic program. Certainly, they are not saying they feel that big-government spending is the way to go again. Instead, pollster Peter Hart told the participants that the people now want some adjustments to the Reagan approach. In the end, the recommended course of action subscribed to by the conference came to just that: This is the time to rein in the President somewhat, particularly in his effort to cut back on social programs. But no clear-cut change in direction is advocated.

* The Democrats decided to try to portray the Reagan administration as one that overspends. House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, in his speech here, depicted the President as the biggest budget buster of all time. Thus, the Democrats will attempt to sell the argument that the massive deficit in the budget is of the President's and the Republicans' making.

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