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Morton Bruce Morton is one of CNN's leading national correspondents. In addition to his extensive political reporting for CNN, he delivers an essay each week, "The Last Word," on the network's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.

Bruce Morton: It's Gore's turn

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Now let's see. Pat Buchanan denounced bigotry and chose an African-American woman as his running mate, though to be fair she is a member of the John Birch Society, which I thought was extinct.

Clearly it's alive, because Ezola Foster says she and her husband joined in 1996. She also confessed, in the interest of getting it all out, that she used to be a Democrat, before Birchland beckoned.

Buchanan's rival for the title Tres Reform Nominee -- and more, important, his rival for $12.6 million in federal campaign funds, John Hagelin, is a believer in transcendental meditation. So is his running mate, which might make for some interesting moments in the White House press room: "Yes, the president has been told about the ultimatum and threat to launch missiles. He is meditating and will meet with his advisers later."

Well, you could go further and do worse. The John Birch Society dealt mainly with The Communist Threat (it used to be capitalized), and of course that's pretty much vanished. You can only spend so much time fretting about Fidel Castro and how dependent he is on tourists and US dollars.

Anyway, there go the Reformers -- headed for the courts, probably. And here come the Democrats. Big money parties: $1 million, was it, for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign in New York? And $10 million (can that be right?) for Mr. Clinton's presidential library in Arkansas.

If your name is Al Gore, you may find all this attention to the Clintons unsettling, but Mrs. Clinton has been promising in interviews that she and her husband will vanish after Monday -- taking with them, she does not add, as much money as they could raise, money which will now not be available to Al Gore as the presidential nominee.

The Democrats are coming back to a city they last visited 40 years ago and to a very different political landscape. They are the "ins" now, after the eight Clinton years. They were the "outs" then; Republican Dwight Eisenhower had been a popular president for eight years. And the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, had to worry, as Gore does now, about the discontent voters often feel at the end of a two-term presidency.

John Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, capitalized on the discontent; he promised to get the country moving again, and charged Eisenhower with a "missile gap," falling behind the Soviets in Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles (a gap with later proved not to exist).

Back then, the solid South was solidly Democratic; many of the major committees in the Congress had Southern Democratic chairmen. Starting with Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Republicans went South; it is now their strongest region, and in Mr. Clinton's opposition Congress, many chairmen are still from the South, but now, Republicans.

Kennedy knew he'd need the South in 1960 and tapped Lyndon Johnson of Texas to be his running mate. That worked; Kennedy was the last Northern Democrat to carry the South and he couldn't have done it without Johnson.

Even with him, Kennedy had to go to Texas and speak to a group of Protestant ministers, trying to convince them that, though a Roman Catholic, he would as president do what seemed best for America, and not take orders from the Pope.

And that's one thing that hasn't changed. The Democrats were the innovators then and now. Kennedy was only the second Catholic nominated for president and, as it turned out, the first to win. Joe Lieberman is the first Jew to be nominated for vice president by a major party.

Still, elections are about presidential nomionees, usually, not their running mates. The Reformers have left town; the Clintons promise they will; the flap over the Democratic Party's enforcement of political correctness by forcing a Hispanic congresswoman to move her fund-raising event will eventually die down, and most of the week will belong to Al Gore -- who finally, in the most important speech of his political life so far, will have his best chance so far to tell America who he is, what he stands for, and where he wants to lead the country.

Conventions give nominees that chance. George W. Bush, most think, made pretty good use of his. Now it's Gore's turn.


Sunday, August 13, 2000

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