ATLANTA - After spending the week chugging through America's heartland doling out bits of his campaign platform, President Bill Clinton helicoptered into Chicago Wednesday night just in time to be re-nominated and hear his possible successor play the administration's pitchman.
In a moment with all the drama of the nominating process that brought him to Chicago in the first place, the unopposed Clinton was given the 2,161 delegate votes he officially needed to become the party's choice for a second term, the first Democrat to get that chance since Jimmy Carter's ill-fated re-election bid in 1980.
Before the roll-call however, Vice President Al Gore brought delegates to tears by relating his sister's agonizing death from lung cancer, a story that explains his advocacy for restricting cigarette sales and advertising.
"Tomorrow morning, another 13-year-old girl will start smoking. I love her too," he said. "Three thousand young people will start smoking tomorrow. One thousand will die a death not unlike my sister's.
"That is why until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."
Earlier, the president was greeted when he stepped off Marine One by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, his daughter Chelsea, his brother Roger, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and a wildly cheering Windy City crowd.
"This convention has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams," the president said before heading to his hotel to watch the proceedings.
"When I accept the nomination of our party ... it will be the first American campaign for the 21st Century, and the last campaign for Bill Clinton," he told about 2,000 people in attendance.
Clinton said he took to the train tracks this week because he "wanted to look into the eyes, into the faces and into the hearts of the people who live in the heartland of America, the people I have worked for and fought for the last four years, and I liked what I saw.
"I wanted them to see our train was not only on the right track to Chicago, we are on the right track to the 21st Century.
"The best is yet to come, the best days of America, the best days of the Clinton-Gore administration, the best days of our efforts to lift up our country and move forward together."
Clinton's arrival came shortly before Gore took to the convention podium and delivered for his boss, hitting the administration's highlights - from the family medical leave law to 100,000 new policemen on the streets to college aid.
Gore, like other Democratic speakers, praised Dole's service in World War II and Congress, calling him a "good and decent man."
"Though we disagree with his ideas, only the unknowing would deny him the respect he deserves," the vice president said. "In his (nomination acceptance) speech, Senator Dole offered himself as a bridge to the past. Tonight, Bill Clinton and I offer ourselves as bridge to the future."
Gore told delegates Clinton stood firm against GOP budget plans to slow Medicare spending and cut education.
"They thought Bill Clinton would buckle under the pressure, cave in to their demands," he said. "But they did not know the true measure of this man. He never flinched or wavered. He never stooped to their level. And, of course, he never attacked his opponent's wife."
"You can judge a president by the enemies he's willing to make. You know that someone who has been attacked as much as Bill Clinton is doing something right."
Clinton is set to close the four-day Democratic love-fest with his acceptance speech tonight, during which he will outline what he wants to do in a second term and likely call for targeted tax breaks for Americans selling homes and employers hiring people off of welfare rolls.
Presidential advisers and supporters said Wednesday that Clinton is hyped for the national address.
"He's going to be so up he's going to have to be tethered down," said Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Gore has kept up a withering schedule of appearances in Chicago this week aimed at pumping up enthusiasm for the fall campaign and keeping him in the spotlight in advance of a likely presidential bid in 2000.
"He'd be the heir apparent," noted University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. "He would go into the nominating process in the year 2000 with a lead on everybody else."
However publicly, Gore is trying to keep the spotlight on this fall, when Clinton faces Dole.
An ABC News poll released Tuesday gives Clinton a 15-percentage point lead over Dole, but most observers expect the election to be closer.
At a meeting of his home Tennessee delegation earlier this week, the former U.S. senator was greeted by supporter who shouted, "Gore 2000!"
Gore admonished the audience, saying, "First things first. Don't lose focus."
The vice president hasn't lost focus, providing cheerleading for Clinton and barbs to Dole.
Gore told the nation's two largest teacher's unions Republicans "have tried to cut, chop, slice and dice all of the things that are important to us." He labeled the GOP the "Dole, Gingrich and the Ginsu gang."
"America will reject the Dole-Gingrich approach, and all this deja voodoo," Gore added during one of about 30 events he has scheduled in Chicago this week.
Two possible Democratic opponents in 2000, U.S. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, also have kept a high profile, making the rounds of delegates.
Gephardt addressed the convention Tuesday night, but was mightily overshadowed by Jesse Jackson, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Mrs. Clinton.
Dodd, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, nominated Clinton in prime TV time last night.
a lengthy speech, Dodd thanked Dole for his military service. Dole was severely wounded during World War II, a fact Republicans referred to regularly during their convention in San Diego two weeks ago.
"It is not Bob Dole's reputation I question, it is his agenda for America," Dodd said. "Sometimes, a fine person has flawed ideas. This is such a time."
Dodd and other speakers said Clinton was right when he pushed a tax increase through Congress in 1993 to fund his economic stimulus plan.
"You did the right thing, you did the right thing for America," Dodd said. "Today, our economy is stronger and more prosperous than it has been in more than three decades."
While Democrats have portrayed Republicans as right-wing extremists, Dodd urged the GOP to steer clear of personal attacks on Clinton and his family.
"The American people are fed up with relentless assaults on people's reputations. This has to stop and stop now," he said. "Stop attacking the presidential family. Stick to the issues. We may at times oppose one another, but we must always respect one another. Let us begin now."
Making Gore, an environmental activist, the keynote speaker Wednesday night blended with Clinton's call earlier in the day for spending $1 billion to speed up toxic waste site cleanups and stiffening penalties on polluters.
"I want an America in the year 2000 where no child should have to live next to a toxic waste dump," the president told a Michigan audience.
His wife basked in the glow of favorable reviews given her convention address Tuesday night, when she cast the election as a battle for the future of America's children and families.
She made several more appearances Wednesday, thanking black followers at one rally for supporting her husband in 1992, visiting famous Billy Goat's Tavern for lunch and rousing home state Illinois Democrats at a delegate meeting.
Mrs. Clinton reminded supporters of the well-worn line often uttered by Republican converts - that they didn't leave the Democratic Party, the party, with its liberal ideology, left them.
"I think the Democrats are back," Mrs. Clinton said. "The Democratic Party is no longer going to let others characterize what we are and what we believe."
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