FOR four days, they talked and studied and talked some more. Some of them even changed their minds on issues as complex as the flat tax. And for James Fishkin, the political scientist who cooked up the experiment, that's the way a democracy should work.
The National Issues Convention, which concluded here on Jan. 21, brought together a cross section of Americans in an innovative experiment in opinion polling. At a time of rising distrust in government and politicians, volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds and income levels gathered to deliberate the grand issues that have an impact on their lives.
The 459 delegates, who were polled on their views before the event, sat to discuss three sets of issues: foreign policy, the economy, and the American family. They were split into small groups, where, with the help of a moderator, they explored issues ranging from Bosnia and sex education to welfare and the corporate tax code.
One of Dr. Fishkin's objectives was to see how much people's opinions are changed through group discussion and access to detailed information. While Fishkin won't release the results of his study until Jan. 26, comments from some of the delegates indicate that the new format caused a few minds to change.
''Whenever you get more information about a particular issue, it has to change your opinion,'' says Dan Akery, an elementary school principal in Austin. ''I went into this thinking that the flat tax was the answer.'' But after a long group discussion and looking at government data, he says he concluded that ''the flat tax is not a panacea. It's just too good to be true. I'm still interested in the flat tax, but I'm not as naive as I was.''
Issues that breathe
For Lance Tyler, a US Forest Service employee from Pueblo, Colo., the group format led him to alter his opinions on the perils of small business.
''It started in our group with a woman who runs a small business and hearing her discuss some of the government's efforts to strangle small business,'' he says. ''When you sit with somebody and hear it from them, it's different from hearing it on the news at night.''
Some delegates found that the mixture of backgrounds was the convention's biggest payoff.
''I was amazed at how people from all walks of life could come together for a few days and have a dialogue on a variety of issues,'' says Mike Schoonover, an ordained minister from Glendora, Calif. ''I sat between somebody who couldn't read and a trucker from Pennsylvania and yet we had a common ground.''
Each group spent up to a dozen hours discussing the issues and formulating questions that were later posed to a handful of presidential candidates. And while most delegates were pleased with their group discussions, they expressed disappointment with the lack of participation and insight offered by the leading presidential candidates.
President Clinton, although he was in Houston over the weekend for the funeral of former US Rep. Barbara Jordan (D) of Texas, did not attend the event. Instead, he sent Vice President Al Gore. Of the four GOP White House hopefuls who participated, only Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana showed up in person. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, and publisher Steve Forbes participated via satellite.
Another 'A' for Gore
Many delegates gave good marks to Mr. Gore, who used the issues convention as an opportunity to poll delegates on their feelings about the minimum wage and the flat tax.
The delegates expressed less satisfaction with the Republican politicians. ''A lot of them were talking at us rather than to us,'' says Joyce Patterson, a clerk with the Dallas Police Department.
Fishkin, the chairman of the Government Department at the University of Texas, agreed that the candidates' participation was not as illuminating as he would have liked.
''Did we change at one stroke the campaign process? Of course not,'' he says. ''But there were a lot of examples of the way in which citizens empowered by information and group discussion relate differently to politicians.''
Mara Wold, a literacy coordinator from San Jose, Calif., describes the process as exhilarating and exhausting.
''I am completely exhausted,'' she says during a telephone interview. ''Our group worked really hard. But I had a wonderful time.''
''It was a lot of hard work,'' agrees Ms. Patterson. ''We were there for a job, but we had fun doing the job and I learned a lot. I will start paying more attention to what's happening. It's not as boring and drawn out as I thought it was.''
Delegates were highly enthusiastic about the bonds they formed within their groups. ''We came as strangers and cried when we had to leave,'' Patterson says.
Mr. Schoonover expresses a common sentiment among the delegates: ''I fell once again in love with people and became more frustrated with politicians.''