Kennedy pushes Democrats toward center. Senator discusses presidential bid for '88

Democratic senators gathered in this idyllic mountain setting during the weekend for camaraderie and talk about their party's future. But overshadowing the retreat was a candidate from the past. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts emerged as a major force for steering Democrats toward the political middle, and he held out the possibility that he will be a presidential contender in 1988.

The senator, for years a symbol of liberalism, told reporters Sunday that Democrats must ``reclaim our legacy as the party of responsible economic policy and as the party of a strong defense, not one that is overbloated.''

Senator Kennedy, who sounded a similar theme Friday during a highly publicized speech in Hempstead, N.Y., said that some government programs have been wasteful and that his party must reach beyond its competing constituencies.

``The speech I made was directed to the Democratic Party,'' he said yesterday, while dodging direct questions about his 1988 plans.

But noting that family considerations might not hold him back as they did in 1984, he said his desire to become president is ``probably the least well-kept secret of public life.''

During the three-day conference, Kennedy held that his more moderate stance is not really new, since he has made many such statements in the past. He conceded, however, that his charge that the party should rise above the demands of various groups is a departure for him.

During his speech in New York he said: ``As Democrats, we must understand that there is a difference between being a party that cares about labor and being a labor party.'' He warned that the party should also be sensitive to women and minorities without becoming a ``women's party'' or a party of minorities.

The Kennedy effort to aim the party in a moderate direction has drawn mixed reviews from his colleagues. While some have applauded it, some liberal senators complained about the new image.

``I'm more concerned that the Democrats not make an effort to become a replica of the Republican Party,'' said Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio.

The conference at the European-styled Bavarian Inn attempted to turn the attention of Democratic senators toward fashioning a vision for the future, especially for American industry. Several participants agreed that the issue that created the greatest interest was American industrial competitiveness.

``It's the largest issue facing the country that isn't getting serious attention by the White House,'' said Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, who has pursuaded his Democratic colleagues to form a task force on the issue.

Senate minority leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia said of the weekend: ``We needed to talk among ourselves.'' He voiced the frustration of his party, which has had to adjust to minority status since 1980 in the US Senate.

``Reagan and the Republicans have temporarily stolen our issues,'' he said, listing social security as one example. He said Democrats had the ideas but needed to learn how to communicate better.

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