IT has been 15 years and eight months since the Democratic Party, the nation's largest and oldest, won a United States presidential election. But Democrats at their 41st quadrenniel convention here sense that their long political drought could soon end.
When 35,000 colorful balloons float down from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden in celebration of Gov. Bill Clinton's nomination for the presidency, it will climax years of planning to close the lengthy Republican rule that began with Ronald Reagan.
"What a great feeling!" exclaimed Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado as the packed-to-the-rafters Garden cheered and stomped for calls to oust President Bush.
The watchword here on the convention floor is "change." That means not only change in the White House, but also change in government attitudes, economic policy, social policy, and - if necessary - change in the Democratic Party.
Democrats are upbeat but chastened. They are ready, even anxious, to meet American voters more than halfway. Gone are the defiant, liberal attitudes of the 1970s and '80s. Speaker after speaker at this convention does a mea culpa, admitting that Democratic Party leaders were sometimes wrong.
Former US Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, one of three keynote speakers, put it clearly: "We must frankly acknowledge our complicity in the creation of the unconscionable budget deficit," she told the delegates.
Texas Gov. Ann Richards sounded a similar theme, saying: "This Democratic Party is ready to go back to school, to listen to the American people, to get our lessons right this time."
Keynoter Bill Bradley of New Jersey conceded: "Democrats must ... admit that we, too, have some responsibility for our predicament. We, too, have often preferred the short term to the long term, ... individual thrills to collective responsibilities."
Yet most of the blame here is being heaped on the Republicans and Mr. Bush. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, former President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia laid out a litany of complaints about the current White House. Putting people first
Said Senator Harkin: "Governor Clinton's plan puts people first; President Bush's plan puts wealthy people first." He added: "Don't read his lips, read his record."
Everything about this convention was designed to turn around American attitudes toward the Democrats. The convention agenda, complete with live music, Broadway singers and dancers, short, crisp speeches, and slick film clips, is carefully staged for a national television audience.
Although the big three TV networks are resisting tradition by broadcasting as little as one hour a night of this convention, much of what happens here is still designed for television. PBS, C-SPAN, and CNN fill in many of the gaps left by CBS, NBC, and ABC.
On the floor here, delegates play to TV by constantly waving banners and signs, often in tempo to patriotic music that booms through the hall. Periodically, party workers pass out new cardboard signs meant to coincide with what the speakers are saying.
So there are signs that proclaim: "Pro-Choice, Pro-Clinton" and "Health Care Our Families Can Afford" and "Clinton, People First." One banner says simply: "Clinton: Make it Happen!!!"
All the while, spotlights play across the crowds, sending a lively visual message of enthusiasm and excitement - or so the planners hope.
In spite of the usual convention exuberance here, there's a sense of something very big happening in the country that overshadows anything that will take place in the Garden. Unpredictable election
James Carville, campaign manager for Clinton, says this is the most dynamic, unpredictable election in modern history, with three times the usual number of voters (over 60 percent) looking for new leadership.
Experts and delegates alike share a common uncertainty about the election outcome. There is general agreement that any of the three major candidates could win it - Clinton, President Bush, or independent Ross Perot.
Yet there is already evidence that the positive images pouring out of New York about the Democrats and Clinton are having their effect on the electorate. Sudden drop for Perot
A national survey conducted overnight July 13 by the New York Daily News and "The Hotline," a political news service, finds Clinton moving out in front in the three-way race with Bush and Perot. Clinton had nearly 35 percent; Bush, 31 percent; and Perot, 24 percent.
What was most striking about the poll to delegates here was the sudden swoon being done by Perot, who was leading in most polls less than a month ago. It appears that large number of Democrats who had defected to Perot are swinging back to Clinton.
Political scientist Tom Cronin of Colorado College says that's the No. 1 goal of any national political convention - to rally the party faithful around their candidate. It appears to be working.
Just as important, a majority of those in the poll now see the Democrats as an agent of change, not a party mired in the past.