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Convention keynote speakers aren't what they used to be

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- For years, the keynote speech has been billed at Democratic and Republican conventions as one of the most important addresses given at party gatherings, often taking a back seat only to the nominee's acceptance speech. But recent changes in convention format -- mostly to conform to prime time television coverage of the events -- have dimmed the spotlight on the keynote role.

Tuesday night's keynote address to the Democratic National Convention will be delivered by one of the youngest members of Congress, 30-year-old Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee. Although Ford is regarded in media and political circles as one of the fastest rising stars in the House of Representatives, he is virtually unknown to millions of U.S. households, many of which are just now paying attention to the looming November battle for control of Congress and the White House.

The Republican Party abandoned the traditional keynote speech during their convention in Philadelphia two weeks ago, and instead decided to trumpet its heaviest hitters -- Arizona Sen. John McCain and retired Gen. Colin Powell -- on separate nights during the four-day gathering.

The Democrats have also chosen to spotlight their stars in a varied manner. Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley -- who remains popular with a number of core Democrats despite his string of primary losses to Vice President Al Gore earlier this year -- will speak an hour earlier than Ford, during the mid-point of Tuesday's prime time coverage of the convention.

During the 1992 Democratic convention in New York, the Democrats again modified the keynote role by presenting a trio of speakers: Bradley, then-Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia and former Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas.

Jordan had made history more than a decade earlier when she became the first woman and the first African-American to deliver the keynote address. Speaking before the 1976 Democratic gathering in New York, the Texas congresswoman delivered a memorable address on race relations.

"A spirit of harmony can only survive if each of us remembers, when bitterness and self-interest seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny," Jordan said.

Perhaps the most celebrated Democratic keynote address in recent memory occurred in 1984 when Mario Cuomo, the popular governor from New York, vigourously defended the liberal Democratic nominee Walter Mondale and challenged President Reaganís phrase that America had returned to its status as a "shining city on a hill."

"There is despair, Mister President ... in your shining city," Cuomo declared before the San Francisco gathering.

Four years later, then-Texas State Treasurer Ann Richards delivered a folksy and biting keynote before the Atlanta convention. The future Texas governor mocked Vice President George Bush for pursuing "a job that he can't get appointed to."

Ford will give the Democratic keynote address at Tuesday night's convention session  

She attacked his perceived disinterest in bread-and-butter issues important to everyday Americans: "Poor George ... he can't help it. He he was born with a silver foot in his mouth," Richards charged.

This year's reduced keynote role may take some of the pressure off Ford. Twelve years ago, another up-and-coming southern politician delivered a long and rambling nominating speech for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis that received its loudest applause from the restless convention crowd when he uttered the phrase: "In conclusion."

Although regarded by many as a disastrous debut on the national political stage, the speech didn't damage the speaker's political ambitions. Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992.

When Gore, a fellow Tennessean, asked him earlier this month to deliver the keynote address at this year's Democratic gathering, Ford told reporters that he responded with an enthusiastic yes "within a nanosecond."

"It's the honor of a lifetime for me," said Ford.



Tuesday, August 15, 2000

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