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Today's Rising Democratic Stars

Speakers Bayh, Morales, and Gantt paint a diverse portrait of the party

By James Tyson and Christina NifongStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor and Robert Bryce / August 27, 1996


The Democratic convention is where the party showcases not only its leadership but also some of its up-and-comers. Among those taking the podium tonight will be a Midwestern governor with rock-star popularity ratings, the first Hispanic in Texas to win a major party nomination for the US Senate, and a black architect running for the Senate in a South tilting away from its Democratic roots.

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Bayh on Hoosier High

If Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh gets his usual reception before giving the Democratic convention's keynote speech tonight, observers might be excused for mistaking the politician for a rock star.

Back in his home state, the Hoosier governor is often greeted at public events by a big passel of shouting fans thrusting out pens and autograph pads.

"When Governor Bayh walks into a crowd, it's like the reaction to a rock star. It's incredible,'' says Brian Vargus, director of the public opinion laboratory at Indiana University in Indianapolis.

Throughout his two four-year terms in office, the popularity rating of the fair-faced governor has remained remarkably high - above 60 percent and at times rising into the 70s.

Even better for the Democrats, Bayh's celestial approval comes from traditionally solid GOP territory. Bayh is the only Democratic governor in the eight states of the Great Lakes, a make-or-break region in the November presidential election.

And Bayh is showing his party a way to reconcile the often-opposing aims of traditional social progressivism with strict fiscal austerity.

"Bayh has exemplified what President Clinton refers to as the 'New Democrat': fiscally conservative and socially moderate,'' says Mr. Vargus, a professor of political science. "In many respects he has worked more closely with the Republican part of the legislature than he has with the Democrats."

The governor has stirred the most support by turning the wreckage of the state's budget into a nearly $2 billion annual surplus without once raising taxes. In fact, he cut a much-loathed auto-excise tax.

Bayh, the son of former Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh, has worked closely with the Republican superintendent of schools in education reform and with the GOP legislature in welfare reform.

"He is the perfect vehicle for Bill Clinton to highlight the fact that Democrats are looking at new and different ways to effect change in the country," says Kip Tew, chairman of the Indianapolis Democratic Party.

Liberals resentful of Bayh's pragmatism sometimes refer to him as a "Republicrat."

"The GOP both hates him and loves him - they hate him because he has the statehouse, but a number of well-placed people in the GOP say, 'If I were in his shoes, I would probably be backing the same legislation,' " says Vargus.

-- James L. Tyson

Pickup-Truck Politician

Few politicians would go to a Reform Party convention and have fun at the expense of Ross Perot. But that's just what Victor Morales did Saturday in Austin, Texas, and it may be one reason the high school civics teacher from Mesquite is Texas's Democratic nominee for the US Senate.

Mr. Morales told the Texas Reform Party convention that he did not support the flat tax because "a 15 percent hit on Ross Perot is not the same as a hit on me." The delegates laughed and, at the end of the speech, gave Morales a standing ovation.

In getting this far, Morales has proved that politics-as-usual does not apply to him. He won the nomination in April after spending less than $60,000. His opponent spent five times that amount.

Now Morales faces incumbent Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, whose war chest holds more than $3.5 million. Morales, meanwhile, has about $200,000 in the bank.