NEW YORK — BILL CLINTON steps before a nationwide TV audience on July 16 to accept his party's presidential nomination with a speech that could finally put Democrats back on the road to the White House.
"This will be the most important speech of Clinton's life," says former Democratic chairman John White.
He might have added that it could be the most important speech for Democrats in over a decade.
Merle Black, an authority on Southern politics, says the Democratic convention here, entering its third day at Madison Square Garden, has three major goals, all of which will be critical in the November election:
* To show Governor Clinton as a forceful, moderate leader who is fully capable of running the federal government.
* To create a new image for the national Democratic Party, which for years was portrayed as an exclusive club for liberals and special interests.
* To create excitement for the Democratic ticket, not only among voters at large, but among party workers who must carry Clinton's message to all parts of the land.
The convention got off to a rousing start, with sharp jibes at President Bush, a couple of swings at independent contender Ross Perot, and even admissions of Democratic mistakes. Yet many in the media and in politics wonder whether these quadrennial extravaganzas are an anachronism - after all, everyone knows who will be nominated.
Party leaders contend these conventions are a powerful force in American politics.
This week's convention will mark the first time that as many as one-third of Americans pay close attention to the Democratic candidates.
If this first look is positive, Clinton's strength could surge. Polls could shift by 5, 10, even 15 percentage points in his favor.
On the other hand, as Mr. White points out, if the convention is quarrelsome, it could take two or three months just to put the party back together again.
Anyone who tuned into the first two nights of the convention already knows the Democratic theme that Clinton wants the party to proclaim: "People First."
Ron Brown, the party chairman, says there are several parts of that theme which speaker after speaker is trying to get across with a well-scripted strategy designed for prime-time TV.
They are telling voters that Democrats will return to their roots, away from elites and back to the working people of America. Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia drove that point home with a rousing speech to the convention the first night.
They are also saying that Democrats support a problem-solving style of government, but one that is also efficient. They are calling for new programs, while turning away from old, failed ideas.
By the end of this week, millions of Americans should know what it means to be a Democrat in 1992, and what Clinton stands for as head of the party.
Dr. Black says Clinton and his running-mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr., already seem well on their way to achieving those goals.
Although there was some resistance to the Clinton-Gore ticket from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, Black says such fights actually may help Clinton with moderate voters. As for African-Americans:
"I think Clinton will do rather well with black voters. A large number of black politicians at the convention will endorse him, and be enthusiastic about him, with or without Jesse Jackson," says the professor, who teaches at Emory University.
In all of this, TV plays a pivotal role.
Looking down on the proceedings from sky boxes far above the convention floor, network commentators shape public perceptions of Clinton and the party.
Although some TV officials wonder if conventions still merit coverage, White insists they are more important than ever in this era of declining voter turnout.
Chairman Brown sees conventions as "a very important vehicle to communicate with the American people."
Millions watch and read about the convention, and become better informed about the issues, he says.
Paul Tsongas, who lost his bid for the presidential nomination this year, says a major purpose of this week of intense convention politicking is to "create some passion" for the Clinton ticket. For one thing, it might convince more Americans to put on "Bill Clinton for President" bumper stickers, he says.
Mr. Tsongas, by the way, told a breakfast meeting of reporters that he has conferred with Mr. Perot about the Texan's forthcoming run for the White House. Tsongas backs Clinton.
But after hours of conversation with Mr. Perot and his aides, Tsongas says he would readily choose Perot over President Bush, if that were the only choice this year.