CHICAGO — The political conventions of 1996 were remarkable attempts by the Democratic and Republican parties to shed partisan skins and present themselves as family-minded forces of caring, coping, and change.
San Diego's and Chicago's kinder, gentler programs - featuring disabled speakers and heart-tugging tales of adversity and triumph - were aimed at a public with little regard for politicians.
More specifically, they reflect the fact that the parties are now battling for a vast new pool of swing voters: young married couples whose political loyalties are as changeable as prairie weather.
Not just the presidency is at stake in this struggle for the center. Democrats believe that if they can reelect President Clinton with a sizable margin, they stand a chance of recapturing Congress, and with it control of America's political destiny in the 20th century's final years.
"The best thing the president could do to ensure Democrats take control of the House and Senate is win in convincing style," says Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor.
And the key to victory this year, if the conventions are any guide, is a kind of anti-politics political style. Past conventions may not have been graduate-level seminars on policy issues, but this year the meetings seemed marked largely by emotional appeals - not intellectual discourse.
Consider the most affecting moments of the conventions' first days. In San Diego, it was Nancy Reagan's moving tribute to her Ronnie. In Chicago, it was the appearance, in his wheelchair, of actor Christopher Reeve - a man previously unknown to have much connection with politics at all.
GOP keynoter Rep. Susan Molinari of New York conveyed the implicit message that Republicans can be working moms, too. Her Democratic counterpart, Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh, is young, energetic - and brought his infant twins on stage.
Elizabeth Dole's informal walk-around appearance dealt largely with her husband's personal background and characteristics. Hillary Rodham Clinton's speech was focused on raising children.
The theme that these elements have in common? Families. If the signature voter of the '92 election was the angry white male, in '96 it might be the harassed young parent looking to get through the day.
Young couples' vote up for grabs
Married voters make up about two-thirds of the electorate. In decades past, this group has tended to vote Republican in presidential elections. But in recent years it's been up for grabs to an extraordinary degree, making it a key demographic battleground between the parties.
"There's just a lot more swing voters than there used to be," says Democratic political consultant James Carville, architect of Mr. Clinton's '92 victory.
Flat incomes, distrust of government, and worry over the breakdown in family values are all forces behind this phenomenon, Mr. Carville says. "The amount of volatility in the American electorate since 1990 is unprecedented in modern time."
Democrats and Republicans are trying to appeal to these voters with substantive proposals that reflect their basic philosophical beliefs. Their different approaches indicate that something real still divides these venerable institutions.
For Clinton and the Democrats, the key to winning the parent vote is small proposals that require action on the part of government: new limits on tobacco ads or an expansion of the family leave act. Bob Dole and the Republicans, by contrast, are dangling proposals that call for the scaling back of government, such as the $500-per-child tax credit and school vouchers.
Clinton advisers, in particular, believe their man needs to garner a greater share of married voters. Doing so isn't necessarily crucial to his reelection, they say. The president retains a healthy lead in many polls - though weeks of hard campaigning are now to come. Rather, young marrieds may be the key to a cherished goal of many Democrats: regaining control of a House and Senate snatched from them by resurgent Republicans in 1994.
It's not a goal that's out of reach. "You have to regard the congressional election right now as much, much more competitive than the presidential one," Democratic pollster Sid Rothenberg told a gathering of party professionals here this week.
A Democrat counterrevolution that retakes Capitol Hill is possible - but unlikely, judged Mr. Rothenberg. Fellow pollster Charles Cook agreed, saying his numbers show Democrats have a 30 to 40 percent chance of retaking the House.
The problem for Democrats, Mr. Cook says, is that Clinton's coattails don't actually seem to be working with some key centrist voters. "Independents that are breaking Democratic on the presidential race are essentially undecided on the congressional race," he says.
Taking back the House
Some other Democratic analysts are more optimistic. "I'm going to predict we're going to take back the House," says pollster Stan Greenberg, who works for a Democratic Party committee.
At the least, the creeping Republicanization of the South at the congressional level might slow down this year as a result of Clinton's electoral strength, Mr. Greenberg says. Some vulnerable seats that once looked sure to go GOP - such as that of retiring Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia - now look as if they'll stay in Democratic hands.
"The numbers in the South are quite strong," Greenberg insists.