For Gore, it's time for Clinton to exit quietly

After Clinton's speech tonight, the Gore camp needs to whisk president out of the spotlight.

Tonight, Bill Clinton takes the stage in Los Angeles as the paladin of his party - a two-term president who brought Democrats back to the electoral center and reinvigorated them via the tonic of White House victory.

Impeachment? The delegates in the Staples Center aren't likely to bring that up.

For Al Gore, the good news is that Mr. Clinton's coattails helped carry him to his own presidential nomination. The bad news is that now, figuratively speaking, he's got to get up there and elbow his boss off the stage.

It won't be easy. Mr. Gore is attempting to supplant a politician of legendary skill. But at his own convention, the last thing Gore wants is to come across as the stiff who appeared after Elvis.

"Clinton is a tough act to follow," says Richard Semiatin, a political scientist at American University in Washington. A decade ago, Bill Clinton was an obscure Southern governor whose only moment in the national sun had been a speech at the 1984 Democratic convention that ran far too long.

Now, Clinton's impeachment's legacy isn't Gore's only problem. His campaign style still suffers by comparison. That's why his staff hopes that by end of this week Clinton will be gone, and Gore will stand alone as the symbol of the party.

Clinton might also be judged an improbable act to follow. It's safe to say that 20 years ago, after Jimmy Carter's defeat by Ronald Reagan, few Democrats thought their party would soon turn to another Southern governor with driving ambition and a thatch of silvery hair.

But they did - and he became his party's most electorally successful politician since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Clinton age is all the more remarkable considering the general weakness of the Democratic Party at the presidential level. Since FDR, only one Democrat - Lyndon Johnson - has won more than 51 percent of the vote. Indeed, since the end of the Civil War, only three of the eight Democrats elected to the Oval Office have won a popular-vote majority.

Clinton himself was elected twice only with a plurality of votes, not a majority. But his great political achievement was in moving his party away from the left and enough toward the center to crack the GOP's hold on the South and win key suburban swing voters in the Midwest battleground states.

"He obviously reinvigorated the party. In 1992, it looked pretty bleak," says Dan Shea, a political scientist and expert in party identity at Allegheny College.

But that invigoration only goes so far, says Mr. Shea. Clinton's scandals, from the Monica Lewinsky matter to questionable fundraising tactics, have made it difficult for people to be proud to be Democrats.

During the eight years of the Reagan administration, the number of professed Republicans rose. During the eight years of Clinton, the number of Democrats has stayed the same, at about one-third of the population.

"One would have expected a rise in the number of Democratic partisans," says Shea.

For Clinton's successor as the Democratic flag bearer, the problem now is how to pay enough homage to Clinton to keep the party core happy while keeping The Man From Hope from dominating the last convention he will attend as president.

Clinton himself is not exactly eagerly riding into the sunset. His heavy fundraising schedule prior to today's opening of the convention drew some criticism from Gore partisans.

Some were particularly irritated about the $10 million brunch to raise cash for Clinton's presidential library, which was hosted by Barbra Streisand on Sunday. They felt the brunch drew donors away from Gore - and that Clinton has years ahead of him to fund his library project.

On the other hand, Clinton did help Gore by implicitly raising the Lewinsky matter prior to the convention itself. By discussing his attempts to overcome his own mistakes at an appearance hosted by a cleric who has advised him since he admitted to infidelity, Clinton perhaps has adroitly deflated any pressure to mention it in his Staples Center speech tonight.

Such pressure would likely have come from the media - not the audience. His reception tonight is sure to be a rousing one.

Gore can only hope that by having the Clintons on so early in the show their performance will be forgotten by Thursday. That's when the vice president takes the stage for a moment he has aimed for his whole adult life - acceptance of a presidential nomination.

"I'm sure some of the Gore people hope Clinton doesn't give a great speech," says Professor Semiatin of American University. "They don't want Gore compared to Clinton in terms of oratory."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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