Clinton aspires to glory in the Garden: Suddenly the Democrats have visions of political rebirth at this week's convention. John Lichfield in Washington on the danger of self-delusion

THE delegates include a Florida high-school boy, 56 US Senators and Oliver Stone, director of the movie JFK. The centrepiece of the convention hall is a 400 sq ft video wall, which can display 56 different images simultaneously, or one immense picture of the candidate. The podium, intended to resemble both a cresting wave and a US flag fluttering in the breeze, will rise and fall on a gigantic hydraulic lift.

The rafters conceal 60,000 red, white and blue balloons, pumped up by 50 red-faced volunteers (the New York balloon-pumping unions had demanded 50 cents a balloon, giving a new meaning to the word inflation). The whole is described by one official as 'Busby Berkeley visits Disneyworld'.

The Democratic Party - celebrated for its capacity to self-destruct, matched only by its ability to self-delude - gathers for a four-day convention in Madison Square Garden, New York, tomorrow to anoint Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas as its candidate for president. The convention's task is to persuade the American public, in a sour mood with all politicians and political parties, that this bizarre, quadrennial jamboree has something to do with their future.

The 5,000 delegates are typically state and county party officials or office-holders - people who live and breathe politics and are therefore atypically American. For the week's duration, they are under instructions to seem normal and likeable at all times.

The task before Bill Clinton, and Senator Al Gore - a matching set, young, moderate and Southern blow-dried - is to present themselves as fresh, trustworthy leaders, ready to mould a new Democratic Party. A few weeks ago, the mood in the party was jumpy, even sombre. It seemed possible that the Democrats' misfortunes of the past 24 years - only one presidential victory in six campaigns - could be crowned by a still greater disaster. The party's candidate might not only be defeated in November but finish as an also-ran, the third candidate, far behind President George Bush and the independent, upstart billionaire Ross Perot.

Mr Clinton, known to most Americans after a bruising primary campaign as the man who made love and not war, and failed to inhale, has been third, or second equal, in recent polls. But yesterday a Time magazine-CNN poll gave him an edge, with 28 per cent of the vote against 26 per cent each for Mr Bush and Mr Perot. Statistically the race has become a three-way tie. Mr Perot's surge is beginning to fade (although his still undeclared candidacy is far from collapsing); Mr Bush remains gravely wounded; the US economy is stuttering. Mr Clinton's economic plan, published last month, though often vague, has been well-received.

The possibility that Mr Clinton may be the next president remains distant but not far-fetched. Ladbroke, as accurate a judge of presidential prospects as many, quotes Mr Clinton at 7-4 and Mr Bush at 4-6. (Mr Perot may be worth a modest bet at 9-2).

The New York convention will not begin with the giddy optimism of Michael Dukakis's coronation in Atlanta four years ago. Many Democrats still have doubts about Mr Clinton - as candidate and as president. And the choice of Senator Gore of Tennessee as running-mate has irritated or, worse, bored many of those in the Democrat's core constituencies of blacks, gut liberals, radical women and labour.

But compared to a month ago, new hope is bubbling through the party of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. The Democrats are even closing ranks. Jerry Brown, the last Clinton primary opponent to admit defeat, is talking about causing a 'creative convention experience', which sounds like trouble. But Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson have grudgingly agreed to play on the team, for this week at least. Self-destruction seems unlikely; self-delusion remains a possibility. The Democrats sorely need a good convention. And yet fewer American viewers will see the proceedings than at any time in the television age. The three main networks have abandoned their traditional gavel-to-gavel coverage and will show only highlights and principal events, such as Mr Clinton's speech on Thursday night and Mr Cuomo's the day before.

As a national event, therefore, the success or failure of the convention this year will rest, more than ever, on Bill Clinton himself, and his acceptance speech which ends the convention on Thursday night. With growing doubts about the character and motives of Mr Perot, Mr Clinton has a chance to leap from the media obscurity of the past six weeks almost as a new candidate. A Herblock cartoon in the Washington Post last week portrayed Mr Clinton speaking on television and a bemused every-husband asking his bored every-wife: 'Remind me what was it about this one that was supposed to bother us so much?'

It may seem odd that Mr Clinton should need a new start. On raw statistics, his performance in the Democratic primaries, which brought him to Madison Square Garden, was outstanding. He won the highest percentage of the nationwide primary vote (52 per cent) since primaries came to dominate the presidential selection process 20 years ago. He is the first Democrat to win primaries in the 10 largest states. He won more primary victories - 32 - than any of his predecessors. His 10.5 million primary votes were more than any previous candidate, Democrat or Republican.

But this record has to be seen against the background of the abysmally low confidence of US voters in the parties themselves; Mr Clinton's weak opposition from other Democrats; and the generally low turnout in primaries (somewhat lower than in previous years, but not disastrously so). In most of the states the victorious Clinton vote added up to no more than around 6-8 per cent of the potential electorate, or 12-16 per cent of the likely electorate in the general election in November. Towards the end, even a big slice of Clinton voters were saying they would rather vote for Mr Perot.

Mr Clinton is the choice of the country's oldest and largest party, but he has yet to enthral or enthuse the nation or, frankly, his own party. On Thursday night he has to begin to convince both that he is: (a) a candidate of change; and (b) more capable of achieving it than Mr Perot. 'It is the single most important speech of his life,' says a Democratic official.

Mr Clinton's aim is to present himself as the practical, moderate and refreshing alternative to George Bush, to make himself sound like something new, but also something likely to work straight out of the wrapper. 'Not the Republican proposition that government has no role - nor the old notion that there is a programme for every problem,' the Democratic draft platform (manifesto) says. 'A shift to a more efficient, flexible and results- oriented government that improves service, expands choice and empowers citizens and communities to change our country from the bottom up.'

This is a typically infuriating piece of Clintonism: partly what he genuinely believes, and partly a transparently opportunistic pandering to the Zeitgeist. The choice of Al Gore as his running-mate is a rejection of the usual ticket-balancing logic in favour of a two- part harmony in this tone of 'raging moderation' (as Senator Gore himself has described it). At his best, Mr Clinton is able to sing the part well: he projects a kind of passionate desire to govern, and knowledge of the ills of the nation. At his worst, he manages to sound both slick and dull. The last time Mr Clinton gave a convention speech - nominating Mr Dukakis in 1988 - it was a disaster. He goes in for speech-writing by committee. His aides and thinkers in policy areas provide alternative drafts. He welds and polishes. There is some anxiety in the Democratic National Committee that a specialist wordsmith might be better employed for this vital occasion. Ted Sorenson - author of John F Kennedy's famous 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country' - is standing by to apply gloss paint, as he did for Mr Dukakis in 1988.

Otherwise the mood in the upper reaches of the Democratic Party is surprisingly buoyant, maybe dangerously so. A senior Democratic poll analyst and strategist said: 'Here's what I think about this election. George Bush is so deep in the hole right now, and public attitudes are so hardened against him, that I don't know how he's going to get out of it. He's an incumbent president, and you must not underestimate the power and worth of that, even in this year, when incumbency is associated with original sin.

'But right now the election is about who replaces the failed leadership of George Bush. As Ross Perot continues to fade - and every indication is that he will - Clinton is moving the pieces into position to emerge as the only guy who is a credible alternative to Bush. He's not there yet, but he's getting there. It's my job to boost Clinton, and I would do so even if I felt badly about his chances. But I've always felt this election was do-able. My honest, gut feeing now is that this election is more do-able than ever.'

(Photographs and graph omitted)

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