NEW YORK — THE Democrats chose New York as the setting of the convention that starts today long before Bill Clinton was even a candidate.
But even then, a year ago, Mr. Clinton saw New York as a risky backdrop.
The city will provide a symbol of the very problems that Republicans seek to link to the Democrats, Clinton said at the time.
New York City is the nation's biggest, strongest bastion of Democratic interest-group liberalism. And the city is closely identified for many Americans with the nation's most severe urban problems - from homelessness to AIDS to garbage-collector strikes.
The image may not be entirely fair to New York, but it is one that includes most of what the New South ticket of Clinton and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore want to put behind. "New York is the ultimate folly of liberalism to most Americans," says political analyst William Schneider. "New York is wretched excess."
Democrats were stung in 1984 when Jeane Kirkpatrick dubbed the party the "San Francisco Democrats," after their convention site. The epithet linked the party to the interest groups on the far left bank of the cultural mainstream.
The setting will not flatter the Democrats, Clinton said last year - especially if "it looks like the Democrats are for basically shipping more money into status quo programs and interests that don't work."
Vice President Dan Quayle has been working that angle for months, citing New York as an example of the failures of liberalism. In a speech here a month ago, he noted among other points that the city payroll had increased 50 percent in 30 years while the population decreased 6 percent.
Americans watching the convention, he said, would be convinced that "we must not let [the Democrats] do to the rest of America what they have done to the people of New York City."
Democrats argue that Americans are no longer willing to let Republicans themselves off the hook for urban problems after the Reagan spending cuts.
New York has a lot of problems, says William Galston, a fellow at the Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution, and Democratic policy thinker, "but you have substantial portions of America that have lots of problems. People are more ready [than in previous campaigns] to confront problems and deal with them."
MOREOVER, conditions in New York City have improved somewhat in the past year. Crime statistics are largely down, and Mayor David Dinkins cut his budget this year and produced a substantial surplus for paying down debt.
Most important, the moderate cast of the Democratic ticket does not reinforce the liberal image of New York.
Even Republican strategist Glen Bolger says, "It would be a little easier to hit on the New York Democrats if you didn't have a guy like Al Gore on the ticket."
Al From, director of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, admits that New York is "associated with the old, traditional Democratic way of doing things," but he expects the Democrats' message to present the contrast of a clear new direction.
Mr. Schneider puts the problem in starker terms: "For most Americans, New York is Mars. It's another planet. It's not America; it's the third world, with third-world gap between the very rich and the very poor. There's no middle class." Suburban voters, Schneider says, "have a lot of problems of their own, and they're not quite ready to spend a lot more money taking on the problems of the cities."
This is not selfishness, he adds, because voters are concerned about the cities. Rather it is cynicism, because they do not trust that government can solve urban problems.
As if to confirm much of New York's reputation, news organizations were confronted with astronomical fees charged by local unions to set up communications lines and equipment - far higher than at most conventions. Democratic Party chairman Ron Brown personally intervened to bring fees down for the television networks, but other complaints were widespread. Cox News Washington Bureau Chief Andrew Glass, for example, noted that a union worker at Madison Square Garden charged his organization $150 - two hour s labor at $75 an hour - to push a button that raised an electric door.
Such problems will not rub off on the Democrats, says Democratic strategist Marc Siegel. Voters will not be "distracted by the negative symbols of the Republicans that have worked in the past. Not when they have real concerns and want change."