A Clearer Choice Between the Parties

THE United States presidential contest has returned to a familiar parity, as the Democrats hold their convention. Polls show the Democrats' Bill Clinton/Al Gore ticket running even with the GOP's George Bush and Dan Quayle, and independent candidate Ross Perot, who has not announced a running mate, losing some ground.

Clinton helped himself considerably by selecting Gore, a competent senator from Tennessee. Many voters saw the choice of Gore as the first successful test of Clinton's ability to make important decisions. Gore, like Clinton, can be said to represent the New South - which implies chiefly that the South has become much like the rest of the country. Both men are in their 40s. Their wives are forceful and articulate, and have independent interests and careers, in keeping with the expectations of women in the

evolving era.

The ticket is programmatically inclined: Clinton with a strong record, as Arkansas governor, on education and providing opportunities for blacks; Gore is a leading Senate activist on the environment. Gore adds a measure of Washington experience to the ticket; and his having run for the presidency itself in 1988 means that he did not have to go through the exploratory vetting process by the media this week that can be so destructive for a ticket that is introducing a new personality to the public.

Most important, the Clinton/Gore ticket moves the campaign out of the personality-vetting phase for the two parties. The campaign can now fairly be said to represent a choice between the two contrasting sets of party values: Clinton and Gore represent characteristic Democratic positions promoting individual (opportunity and) rights against government intrusion and greater government activism in developing jobs; Bush and Quayle defend the Reagan-era emphasis on curtailment of regulation.

We do not yet know how Mr. Perot will fare as the public gets to know him. At the moment he still benefits from the widely held perception that neither the president nor Congress is up to the job of managing the country. Democrats who had voted for Bush in '88 are exasperated with him now, as the economy stagnates. They want action, or at least clear evidence that he realizes the country is stalled. The can-do manner of billionaire Perot appeals to voters, particularly older voters, who don't believe in letting problems slide. Bush may be doing fine in foreign affairs, but they just don't think he is engaged in the domestic scene. The Reagan/Bush era has been under way for 12 years; the Bush/Quayle ticket is showing no new program for the future.

Perot's entry into the race has helped the establishment-party candidates by diverting media attention from them. This is a contrarian view. But too much exposure can easily turn negative.

It is complained that the media, chiefly television, have cut back on convention coverage. It would be hard to argue, however, that the couple of hours a night was less than was needed to assess what is going on in the campaigns.

Candidates can usually count on a lift from their conventions. This is the time for Clinton to get enough altitude for his campaign to offset an expectable equivalent boost for Bush when the Republicans meet next month in Houston. It remains to be seen if Perot will get a similar boost from a planned August convention.

None of this means the campaign will not turn negative the way it did in 1988. Democrat Michael Dukakis aided his own downfall by not responding vigorously to the Bush camp's attacks.

The country today is about evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. The GOP benefits under such equivalence because its votes in the Western states can garner a larger proportion of electoral votes.

But the equivalent status of the parties, however Perot plays among Republicans and Democrats, does offer the possibility of a healthy choice between them.

This, then, is stacking up as very conventional election, with the strong possibility of casting a vote for the Democratic or Republican positions.

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