The Democratic Convention: Long road to Clinton coronation - The Democrats meet in New York this week to endorse the man they are coming to believe can oust George Bush from the White House

PERHAPS it is one of those gritty, resonant metaphors of the South which Bill Clinton can occasionally produce, that best sums up his road to coronation. The primary campaign in New Hampshire last February was in its final days. The air was thick and thunderous with allegations about Gennifer Flowers and the Vietnam draft. His poll ratings were plunging, hardly an expert gave him a prayer. Clinton appeared before his supporters, exhausted but somehow still defiant. 'I'm going to fight,' he said, 'until the last dog dies.'

And die they did. One by one his rivals dropped out as the primary trail wound on across the parched and thankless political landscape of America, eliminated by lack of votes, lack of will and lack of money. Only Jerry Brown remained, snapping at Clinton's heels right through to the end. By then, however, it was too late. Clinton was to lose New Hampshire to former Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, the first outsider to feature in this baffling election cycle. But so low were expectations that a decent second place was a moral victory. The self-proclaimed 'Come-back Kid' was born.

Thereafter he lost precious little else. Over the next three months Clinton would score more victories (32) than any Democratic candidate in history, and a greater share of the total primary vote (52 per cent). But you would hardly have guessed it. When he dragged himself over the finishing line on 2 June in California, Clinton mathematically assured himself the nomination. But the last dog was bloodied, weary and all but obscured by the season's ultimate outsider sensation, Ross Perot.

How different it had been at the beginning, on an October day in Little Rock that still smelt of summer, when the bands played and a handsome young Governor of Arkansas declared his candidacy for the greatest prize in politics. Bill Clinton seemed then the answer to his party's prayers. He was moderate, he had an eager mind and bright ideas and, at his best, a charisma unmatched by any Democratic contender since the Kennedys. A Southerner, he was credited with the best chance of breaking the Republican's stranglehold on a region which had handed them the White House in five of the last six elections.

But suddenly a honeymoon became a nightmare. In January two hammerblows landed which would have felled a lesser man in a stronger field: the adultery allegations of Gennifer Flowers, which Clinton denied but never entirely convincingly, and even more serious charges that he had manoeuvred to evade the Vietnam draft while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford - again refuted, but again less than convincingly. Clinton's brief aura of electability was shattered. And if that were not enough, he faced in Paul Tsongas a rival who combined economic 'realism' with liberal social views. The upmarket 'Volvo' vote went to Tsongas, forcing Clinton to wage a campaign for the union, blue-collar and minority votes, a return to the past from which he once represented so appealing a break. With a combination of political professionalism, good organisation and sheer willpower, he prevailed. Within a month of this New Hampshire triumph, Tsongas too had bowed out. But the party's embrace of Clinton was only luke-warm.

The sensational advent of Ross Perot, which for a while seemed Clinton's nemesis, may yet prove his salvation. What went before has been if not forgotten, at least obscured. The spiteful name-calling between Perot and Bush has helped lift him in the polls to a three-way tie. He goes into the New York convention this week with an opportunity granted to few politicians: to re-invent himself and re-introduce himself to a watching nation. He has seized the chance.

The Clinton unduly beholden to blacks and other minorities has been banished by a public row with Jesse Jackson. In choosing Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee as his running mate, and driving through an eminently moderate convention platform, he has sent the clearest possible signal that he will fight the election to regain the lost centre. On his side too is youth. Intangible but all-pervasive is the feeling that this is a moment when the torch of power should be passed to a new generation. If Clinton can overcome his tendency to pander, and his preference for bland compromise over painful choice, he could yet win. In the cruellest, most important race of all, Clinton could be the last dog standing in the contest not only for his party, but for his sceptical, disenchanted country as well.

(Photograph omitted)

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