President Clinton’s almost flawless campaign for renomination reached its climax Wednesday night as delegates to the Democratic National Convention, celebrating him as “a bridge to the future,” gave him an unopposed first-ballot triumph.
It was a joyful celebration for the former small-state governor who restored Democratic fortunes four years ago, was repudiated in the 1994 midterm elections and made a political comeback this year that has been nothing short of spectacular.
“You did the right thing,” Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd said in a nominating speech that had delegates chanting for the man from Hope, Ark., who has charted a more moderate course for the party of liberals.
Clinton arrived in Chicago shortly before the roll call that would make him the first Democratic president to be renominated without major opposition since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“As all of you know,” Clinton told a crowd greeting him at the University of Illinois, “when I accept the nomination of our party tomorrow night and start this campaign, it will be the first American campaign for the 21st century and the last campaign for Bill Clinton.
“The best days are yet to come,” Clinton told the rally before walking off arm in arm with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea.
His acceptance speech tonight comes after a four-day train trip aboard the 21st Century Express through Middle America, where some surprisingly large crowds reflected Clinton’s lead in the polls over Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole.
Breaking with tradition, Clinton gave Vice President Al Gore the convention spotlight Wednesday night instead of tonight, when both he and the president would normally speak to the delegates.
“President Clinton asked me to speak tonight, and you can probably guess the reason,” Gore deadpanned. “My reputation for excitement.”
Gore referred to Dole’s speech in San Diego to the GOP convention to draw distinctions between the tickets, drawing cheers and applause in the process.
“Sen. Dole offers himself as a bridge to the past,” Gore said. “Tonight, Bill Clinton and I offer ourselves as a bridge to the future.”
Dodd, who nominated Clinton four years ago in New York, attributed Clinton’s success to reviving the nation’s economy, creating 10 million new jobs and cutting the federal deficit four straight years. He portrayed Clinton as a man taking cigarettes from the lips of teenagers, guns out of the hands of criminals and using a V-chip to block offensive television for kids.
“It is for you, the people of this country, that the president has brought down interest rates,” Dodd said. “More Americans can own a home, start a business and send a child to college.”
Delegates swallowed their misgivings over Clinton’s approval of a welfare bill that will reduce aid for the nation’s poor and trim programs for legal aliens. But some, such as New York Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, worried about the party’s new direction.
“You get elected this way until we begin to see the consequences,” said Moynihan, who said he doubted Clinton would be able to fix the new welfare law. “You’re likely to have a stunning problem of homelessness among children and women.”
But Monyihan seemed in the minority Wednesday as delegates welcomed reports of Clinton gains over Dole in voter surveys.
Clinton’s political fortunes paradoxically began to rebound with the election of a conservative Republican Congress in 1994, and Democratic speakers invoked House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s name at every turn, linking it with GOP nominee Dole.
Dodd said the Republican ticket was led by a man of integrity. “It’s not Bob Dole’s reputation that I question, it is his agenda for America,” Dodd said. He listed Dole’s opposition to creation of Medicare in 1965 and to a minimum wage increase in 1996.
“Remember last year?” Dodd said. “Sen. Bob Dole and Speaker Gingrich voted to cut Medicare by $270 billion. But for the president’s veto, they would have succeeded.”
Gore too praised Dole as a war hero, a good and decent man wounded in battle for his nation. “But make no mistake: There is a profound difference in outlook between the president and the man who seeks his office,” Gore said.
The U.S. Senate, once a private men’s club, now includes five Democratic women who also took the spotlight Wednesday night. The applause was particularly sweet for Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun. For the past week, she has been pounded by the Chicago media for her secret visit to the military dictator of Nigeria.
Again and again, delegates responded to attacks on their Republican opponents. Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, who seconded Clinton’s nomination, ridiculed Dole’s tax cut plan as “warmed-over voodoo economics that spell bigger deficits, recession and more pain for the most vulnerable.”
But Clinton may have some tax cuts to discuss tonight during his acceptance speech. Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff, was outlining to reporters a package that could include funds to finance city jobs for persons coming off welfare and a reduction in the capital gains tax for middle class home sales.
“We’re still working on the details,” a White House official said Wednesday.
At the convention, delegates were delighted by the mixture of humor and political raw meat offered up by Gore. The biggest laugh came with his promise to perform his version of the gyrating “Macarena.” After standing motionless and stone-faced, he asked: “Want to see me do that again?”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: DEMOCRATS ON-LINE Texts of key speeches from the Democratic National Convention along with the party platform are posted on Virtually Northwest, The Spokesman-Review’s on-line service, at http:/ /www.VirtuallyNW.com.