The party in Atlanta

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A NOTE of confidence can be detected on the floor of the Democrats' convention hall in Atlanta. Certainly no one is seriously predicting a Democratic sweep. But delegates and observers feel the party has a realistic chance at the White House this fall, in a way even party regulars now concede they did not have in 1984 or in 1980. Even the delegates from Colorado, which has not voted Democratic at the presidential level in a generation, now find that the Dukakis staff has targeted their state for serious campaigning.

With her line about George Bush being ``born with a silver foot in his mouth,'' keynote speaker Ann Richards got a big laugh. More important, the Texas state treasurer's quip may prove to be the kind of line that resonates throughout the campaign and helps put the Republican forces on the defensive.

As keynote speaker, Ms. Richards, who is doing all she can to dispel the myth that feminists have no sense of humor, had a hard act to follow: New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo, whose 1984 speech electrified his audience, many of whose members are gathered in Atlanta.

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The city of Atlanta itself has a hard act to follow: San Francisco. Many of the delegates sweltering under the Southern sun and shoehorning themselves into the Omni remember the 1984 convention in the city ``air conditioned by God.'' The hall there was much bigger, too, and out of deference to East Coast prime time, the sessions wrapped up by 8 p.m. instead of stretching out to nearly midnight.

But better to win the election than just the convention. The party's biggest concern, that Jesse Jackson would somehow disrupt the convention, has now virtually evaporated. Like a hostess who wants the dinner conversation to be lively but not too lively, the Democratic National Committee has been trying for a convention that is harmonious but not dull, if that's possible.

For all the stage management in a party convention - even the apparent red, white, and blue color scheme in the hall is actually salmon, gray, and azure, to look better on television - politics is still spontaneous and fluid. It's still more in kibbitzing and buttonholing on the convention floor, or in the corridors, than it is in orchestrated media events on the podium.

Atlanta's glitzy hotel atriums seem to be a world apart from the high school gyms and other humble venues in New Hampshire and Iowa where the 1988 presidential race started in earnest several months back. But insofar as both locales help bring people together to do the great work of deciding what their government should be like, they are not so different after all.

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