US Presidential Election: Polls boost Democrats' air of unity: The Ross Perot threat and a little internal dissent were the only irritants as the party began preparing yesterday to anoint Bill Clinton

THE Democratic Convention began yesterday with unaccustomed unity and a series of polls confirming a warming of voter feeling towards the party's prospective presidential candidate, Governor Bill Clinton.

However, delegates for the former California Governor, Jerry Brown, disturbed, if not disrupted, the first evening's proceedings with constant chants of 'Let Jerry speak'. Negotiations for speaking time for Mr Brown were still in progress last night.

Mr Clinton, in danger of becoming the third candidate a few weeks ago, is running neck-and-neck with President George Bush. A New York Times-CBS poll showed the undeclared independent, Ross Perot, dropping 14 points in four weeks, from first place to third.

But it appeared the Texan billionaire might have a trick up his sleeve in Democratic convention week. Doug Wilder, the Democratic Governor of Virginia - and the nation's only black governor - said he had discussed the possibility of becoming Mr Perot's running-mate. The Perot campaign confirmed the discussions but said no decisions had been made. A Perot-Wilder ticket could build Mr Perot's poor standing among blacks. By siphoning off some black votes, Mr Perot could undermine Mr Clinton's hopes of capturing several Southern states.

In every other respect, there were encouraging auguries for Mr Clinton at the start of the four-day convention in Madison Square Garden. In a poll conducted for Newsweek magazine, 38 per cent of voters said they had revised their view of Mr Clinton for the better in the last month (in which time the Arkansas governor had produced an economic plan and chosen another Southern moderate, Senator Al Gore, as his running-mate). All poll movements are suspect and ephemeral in this bizarre year in American politics. But Democratic strategists now look confidently for a further 'bounce' from the convention itself, especially Mr Clinton's acceptance speech on Thursday.

Mr Clinton has been studying videos of speeches by John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Mario Cuomo, Jimmy Carter and George Bush. By all accounts, he plans a folksy, personal speech, linking his political themes - public investment for growth, racial tolerance, improved education - to episodes in his own life (from rural poverty in Hope, Arkansas, to Oxford University, to the run-in to the White House). The Democrats hope to pull off the same kind of instant re-creation of political persona which George Bush managed at the Republican convention in 1988. In one speech, Mr Clinton hopes to move from love, war and uninhaled marijuana joints to a passionate, caring, clever standard-bearer of generational change.

The reports linking Mr Wilder to Mr Perot jolted senior Democrats, who had been enjoying overnight news of further dissension and disarray in the camp of the undeclared, independent presidential candidate. Mr Perot has fired Hal Riney - a veteran producer of political television advertisements for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns - apparently because a pilot five-minute biographical advertisement on Mr Perot was not heroic enough.

By contrast, the Democrats, given to fits of self-destruction at previous conventions, were managing to sustain a somewhat synthetic unity in New York. The only hints of dissension came from the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Mr Brown. Mr Jackson is still criticising the narrowness of the Clinton-Gore ticket and message but is ready to be mildly positive when he addresses the convention tonight.

Mr Brown, the last Democrat to oppose Mr Clinton in the primaries, is holding out for some debate on his proposed amendments to the party platform (manifesto). Mr Brown has proposed a 'humility agenda', including the repeal of a congressional pay-rise and a dollars 100 ( pounds 53) limit on campaign contributions.

Mr Clinton and Mr Brown have been negotiating by telephone. Mr Brown seems likely to be given time tomorrow evening to present his ideas and have his own name formally placed in nomination for the presidency. In return, the Clinton team is seeking at least a perfunctory endorsement of Mr Clinton by Mr Brown, once the party makes its decision. Until a few days ago, Mr Brown was insisting - with some backing from the polls - that Mr Clinton could not win in November. A series of recent surveys has told a different story. The New York Times-CBS poll, conducted over the weekend before the convention, showed Mr Bush at 33 per cent and Mr Clinton at 30 per cent, with Mr Perot at 25 per cent. In a race between Mr Bush and Mr Clinton, the score was 43-43 - Mr Clinton's best poll standing head-to-head with Mr Bush.

JOHANNESBURG - Nelson Mandela, who flew to New York last night to address the UN Security Council, said he had been invited to address the Democratic Convention but would not have the time to do so, Reuter

reports. The ANC's representative in Washington would go instead.

(Photographs omitted)

Making the running, page 17

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