Will the Convention `Launch' Clinton?

THIS convention is struggling to find its identity. Is it made up of the stuff that launches a winner, like the one that met here in 1976 and sent Jimmy Carter on his way to victory? That's the big question.

Along the primary trail many Clinton delegates lost some enthusiasm for their candidate when he floundered over what has been called "character questions." Then for weeks the Arkansas governor was pushed into the shadows by the spotlight-holding presidential bid of Ross Perot.

Mr. Carter, the last Democrat to win the presidency, was the beneficiary of a buoyant, hopeful, gleeful convention. There will be an abundance of balloons and shouts sent to the sky here; even sheer joy will take over at times. But a question mark inevitably will remain over Madison Square Garden when celebrating ends.

Even with the politically potent Al Gore added to the ticket, a large number of delegates, particularly those from the unrepresented North, will be asking themselves whether they might have had a better chance to pass President George Bush and Mr. Perot and win it all if someone else - like Mario Cuomo - was heading the ticket.

This sort of delegate uneasiness about Bill Clinton and his future isn't the stuff that is likely to provide a lasting glow to the upcoming Democratic campaign.

Governor Clinton may go on to victory regardless. He's been rising in the polls of late. But this convention isn't likely to help him a great deal - outside of adding a new spring to his step, at least for a few weeks.

As a newsman I've been working national political conventions since 1956. So it is natural to search my memory for apt comparisons to and contrasts with this New York gathering. Two conventions come quickly to mind: the assemblage that nominated Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and the earlier 1960 convention that nominated John F. Kennedy.

With the rioting in the streets of Chicago and the tumult on the convention floor, Humphrey could have received a better send-off, one astute observer wrote, "at a bankruptcy sale." That convention was an angry one, deeply divided over the Vietnam War. This convention is worlds removed from the dark mood of 1968, though dark economic clouds hover overhead. Humphrey was wounded by that get-together and never was able to recover.

Clinton won't be having a Humphrey convention. But what he will be getting is something between that Chicago disaster and the all-out boost that left Carter with such a big lead that President Gerald Ford, try as he did, could never overcome it.

Here I'm reminded of President Carter's 1980 effort and that sad convention platform picture of Carter trying so hard to get Ted Kennedy to shake his hand. That final image conveyed to the vast TV audience, of a president and a challenger who could not at least provide a show of unity, certainly didn't help Carter in his race that fall against Ronald Reagan. Carter, in fact, claims that this scene cost him the election.

But back to 1960. Many have forgotten that it was Adlai Stevenson and not John Kennedy who was the favorite of the crowds attending that Los Angeles convention.

The emotional response to Stevenson's nomination was something I will never forget. There was love for Adlai in the cheers that went on and on and on. For awhile I thought this crowd response might deprive Kennedy of a nomination for which he clearly had the delegates. When Kennedy prevailed, I saw a number of Stevenson supporters weeping.

The convention that emerged that year did not really help Kennedy very much. He remained well back of Richard Nixon in the polls. It was not until the first debate in Chicago that fall that Kennedy become a real contender and then went on to win.

So from that 1960 convention Bill Clinton might take some comfort. He will have the nomination in his hands. Also, there should be a show of unity. And - who knows? - maybe Clinton, like Kennedy, will be able later on to use his debating skills to defeat his opponents. Some delegates are saying that Clinton reminds them of Kennedy. Maybe they've got something there.

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