Democrats' L.A. message: Just the facts, ma'am

To persuade public he'd be the better leader, Gore will emphasize issues like education, Social Security.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Democrats are famous for their messy conventions - for fights inside the hall, protests in the streets, bruising conflicts over the party platform.

This year, as the Republicans did two weeks ago, the Democrats will present a unified party. And unlike the Republicans, the Democrats don't feel they have to hide their congressional leaders from the viewing public.

But in a way, the Democrats face a tougher challenge. Their presidential candidate, Vice President Al Gore, has chronically trailed in the polls throughout the campaign.

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And at the very moment when Mr. Gore needs to separate his political identity from that of Bill Clinton, the president is carving out a large presence here, raising money for his presidential library and delivering what promises to be a closely watched speech tonight.

Gore also needs to rally the Democratic faithful to his cause to the

degree that core Republicans are backing their nominee, George W. Bush. Polls have shown that while 90 percent of Republican voters support the Texas governor, only 70 to 80 percent of Democrats are with Gore so far.

"Gore needs to solidify his base and emerge from the shadows of Bill Clinton," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. "Both of them are fairly dicey goals."

The leadership thing

Throughout the campaign, the public has consistently told pollsters that they see Mr. Bush as more of a leader than Gore.

This is in part a hazard of holding the vice presidency for eight years, an understudy role that by definition does not carry an aura of leadership, even though Gore has been a key adviser and handled substantive issues in the Clinton White House.

Voters also find Bush more likeable than Gore. But don't watch for any dramatic efforts to remake Gore's personality here in Los Angeles.

Instead, remarks from Democratic strategists make it clear that the party plans to show the public that Gore is the man for the job by highlighting his stand on key issues.

Issue dissemination

The Democrats believe they have the winning positions on issues that rank at the top of voters' concerns - such as education, Social Security, and healthcare - and that, when supplied with the facts, the public will come around.

"Issue dissemination, fact dissemination," Democratic Party co-chairman Ed Rendell said at a Monitor breakfast, when asked about how to propel Gore into the lead.

For example, voters often say they support private-school vouchers - which Gore opposes - until they are told that the funding for them would come from public school budgets. "Boom, a total flip," says Mr. Rendell. "Like 2-1/2 to 1 against."

The Democratic Party's other co-chairman, Joe Andrew, agrees that Gore's weakness on the leadership question can be turned around when it is linked to issues.

Voters "don't want somebody who's just a leader," he says. "They want somebody who's a leader on what they think is the No. 1 concern to them and their family."

The Democrats are aiming their convention message heavily at working families, a major target group for both parties.

The question is: Will those voters pay attention to the Democrats' detailed rendition of the issues, or will a fairly sedate electorate make political choices based on vague impressions? The Bush camp seems to be counting on the latter, so far to positive effect.

Extricating Gore from the negative side of Clinton while benefiting from the positive aspects of the Clinton years - namely, the strong economy - could prove to be just as daunting a challenge.

Lieberman's effect

But early polls show that Gore's selection of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has given his campaign a boost.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that a majority of voters who support Clinton's policies but disapprove of him personally are "more comfortable" with Gore now that Senator Lieberman is on the ticket.

Since the Lieberman decision, Gore has also picked up some strength among key voter blocs, such as white Catholics, whom the Republicans are also wooing, and voters who lean Democratic.

Analysts believe Lieberman's strong Orthodox Jewish faith is appealing to most religious voters, who support the senator's moral approach to governing.

If nothing else, the Democrats seem to be learning from the Republicans in their disciplined approach to running campaigns. Democratic strategists from around the country are echoing the same themes about focusing on issues, not personality.

Neel Pender, executive director of the Democratic Party of Oregon, says all the focus on "likability" doesn't give voters enough credit.

"At the end of the day," he says, "people will assess the two candidates. Voters are pretty savvy. They expect the two leaders to discuss the issues in depth."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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