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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: Gore's challenge is not to lose in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- The little secret of national political conventions is this: Candidates can't win their elections with a good convention performance, but they can lose them if they lay an egg. That's both good and bad news for Al Gore.

Much has been made about the pressure on Al Gore to knock the delegates' socks off in his Thursday night address in Los Angeles. Too much.

The fact of the matter is that Gore would improve his chances will a strong speech that both motivates the Democratic base but also shows him to be more personally appealing and principled than swing voters now believe. But the acceptance speech is just one step up a long staircase.

The number one thing that Gore needs to do is avoid a poor performance. If he's painfully boring or stiff, or if he overcompensates and seems frantic, the vice president could significantly harden sentiment against him. So far, of course, he's avoided the one thing that each party is most worried about: deep internal divisions at the convention.

Sure, liberal delegates and political operatives at the convention have been restrained in their enthusiasm for vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) got the publicity she was seeking when she went public about her doubts about Lieberman's commitment to affirmative action. And she got the very public commitment to affirmative action that she wanted from the Connecticut senator.

But by historical standards, the Democratic convention has been as smooth as silk. Bill Bradley played the role of the loyal Democrat, and Jesse Jackson and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) helped rally the party's liberal base.

One Democratic member of Congress I talked with in Los Angeles thought the party had played too much to the base. And Jesse Jackson told CNN's anchors after his speech Tuesday night that the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) wasn't sufficiently interested in reaching out to traditional Democrats. But all in all, the traditional and more moderate DLC wings coexisted rather well.

It's not that I'm saying Gore's acceptance speech at the Staples Center is irrelevant. But even if he hits a home run, he still has to come up to bat again. And again. And again.

Gore and Bush are facing a series of tests that they must pass. Passing doesn't mean that the hopefuls need to destroy their opponents in one speech or at one rally, or that Bush and Gore need to immediately answer all of the questions that voters still have about them.

They have about 10 weeks to build their cases. It will be difficult for Gore to convince people overnight that he's a leader, and he'll need weeks to lay out his case about George Bush's performance as governor of Texas. He just needs the opportunity, which means that he can't do anything to firm opinion against him.

Talk to me about pressure and importance in October, after the Summer Olympic Games in Australia end. That's when the heat will really be on Gore and Bush. The presidential debates, also scheduled for October, now look to be much more important than Gore's acceptance speech.

We won't know who under the most pressure then until we see where the polls are and how enthusiastic each party's base is. And by then, we'll probably have forgotten about Bush's and Gore's acceptance speeches. Unless, of course, Gore screws up.


Thursday, August 17, 2000

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