CHICAGO - On a day when scandal claimed his chief political adviser, President Clinton struck an optimistic tone before a nationwide television audience, styling himself "a bridge to the 21st century," and Republicans as stuck in the past.
The president's convention-closing speech sought to pull together old-line liberals and anxious middle-American families. He referred pointedly to the limits of government, challenging business leaders to "try to hire somebody off welfare - and try hard."
"For four years, we have pursued a simple but profound strategy - opportunity for all, responsibility from all, one strong American community," Clinton told a packed house of chanting, cheering Democrats at Chicago's United Center.
The speech launched the president and Vice President Al Gore on a two-day bus tour across Midwest and Mid-South states, attempting to recapture the youthful electricity of their 1992 campaign ride.
It ended with the rock anthem "Only the Beginning" rattling the home of basketball's champion Chicago Bulls, as balloons and shimmering confetti showered the jubilant crowd.
True to his first campaign's obsessive theme - "It's the economy, stupid" - Clinton claimed credit for creating 10 million new jobs and holding down interest rates, while promising to build on that record with new tax breaks and job-training programs.
He worked at every turn to frame his re-election campaign as a forward-looking, optimistic one, implicitly calling attention to the 23-year age gap with Republican nominee Bob Dole.
"We have an obligation to leave our children a legacy of opportunity, not debt. So this is one area in which I respectfully disagree with my opponent," said the president, lashing out at the Republicans' tax-cut promise. "I don't think we should bet the farm, and I don't think we should bet the country."
The 68-minute speech was a detailed, policy-heavy one - not the wistful personal journey of Clinton's 1992 national debut.
It drummed at every opportunity on the GOP convention speech of the 73-year-old Dole, who offered himself as a bridge between his World War II generation and the next one.
"I love and revere the rich and proud history of America," said the president, "but with all respect, we do not need a bridge to the past - we need to build a bridge to the future."
The buzz across the convention hall, as more than 4,800 delegates and alternates awaited the president, was the toppling of Clinton's political guru, Dick Morris.
Morris, who has advised Clinton since his days as a candidate for Arkansas governor, quit his campaign job and flew home after tabloid reports linking him to a $200-a-night call girl. The report, first aired in the supermarket periodical The Star, alleged that Morris regularly had liaisons with the woman at a Washington, D.C., hotel rented for him by the Clinton-Gore campaign.
"He had a very important - a leading role - on that (campaign) team, but life will go on," said presidential spokesman Mike McCurry, admitting the news was an ill-timed distraction on what should have been a triumphant day.
The president's prime-time address capped off a four-day convention dominated by the party's liberal base of labor unions, teachers and minorities. Their most durable spokesman, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was given a featured Thursday night role, in which he called Clinton the spiritual heir to his own slain brother, John F. Kennedy.
He played off a Republican convention speech by Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson that reeled off a laundry list of Democratic bugaboos, responding with his own denunciation of the Republican agenda.
"It is the radical wish list of the education-cutting, environment-trashing, Medicare-slashing, choice-denying, tolerance-repudiating, gay-bashing, Social Security-threatening, assault rifle-coddling, government-closing, tax loophole-granting... minimum wage-opposing Republican majority that dominated the delegations in San Diego," he said.
"In the end all they offer is warmed-over supply-side economics that devastated our economy in the past," said the liberal lion. "Bob Dole will not tell us how we would pay for his plan, but a secret plan to pay for a Dole tax cut is as dangerous as Richard Nixon's secret plan to end the war."
Clinton delivered what his party chairman, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, called "a very optimistic message" that portrayed Democrats as the forward-looking party of change.
"On issues that once tore us apart, we have changed the old politics of Washington," Clinton said. "For too long, politicians in Washington asked, `Who's to blame?' But we asked, `What are we going to do?"'
The 50-year-old Arkansan reminisced about his three-day Rust Belt train ride that preceded the convention, and repeated the campaign themes that he laid out along the way - a nationwide campaign to tutor third-graders in reading,
"I would not have missed this trip for all the world," he said, "for this trip showed that the hope is back in America, that America is on the right track for the 21st century."
In a videotaped prelude to the speech, a misty-eyed Clinton reminisced about the tragedies that colored his first term - the plane-crash death of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, the suicide of White House lawyer Vince Foster, the deaths of American troops in Somalia and Saudi Arabia.
He saluted Dole's war service, calling for their Nov. 5 showdown to be fought on the high ground. "I think that is what an election should be about, not to demean your opponent," he said in the film.
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, a constant presence in this return to her hometown, called the president "a person who combines the best of his heart and his head."
Dole, vacationing in Florida, made no official comment on the president's economic plan, but his campaign issued a brief statement calling the tax credits a poor substitute for the Republican offer of a 15 percent across-the-board income tax cut.
The Clinton plan would pour $3 billion over the next four years into locally run job training programs in more than 100 urban areas targeted as pockets of long-term unemployment and welfare dependency.
It also would expand tax credits that let employers write off half the wages and fringe benefit costs of giving jobs to longtime welfare recipients.
Also, the plan would allow a homeowner to sell a house and purchase a less-expensive one, or rent an apartment, without paying capital gains tax - a tax the Republicans promise to repeal altogether.
He called his tax plan the responsible alternative to Dole's $550 billion one, "pro-family, pro-education, pro-economic growth ... and paid for in my budget, every penny and every dime."
Polls show the president leading Dole by anywhere from 7 to 12 percent nationally, a lead he has never relinquished after rebounding from two years of popularity doldrums.
But a Democratic president has not been re-elected in 32 years, and Republicans still hold a stranglehold on key Electoral College states out of reach to Democrats.
Democrats came away declaring the convention a success, with the party unharmed by a still-simmering debate over the president's decision to sign a Republican bill slapping time limits on welfare eligibility - a law he now says he will change before its 1997 effective date.
"I know this is a shocker for a lot of people. We don't have a reputation for being truly united, but the unity is real here," Dodd told reporters.
Striking an Olympic metaphor, U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga, said, "We are coming out of Chicago at Michael Johnson speed."
But the fragility of that unity was displayed earlier in the day, when Gore was forced to cut short his speech to a Democratic women's luncheon after welfare-reform protesters tried to shout him down.
When Gore declared the Democrats' platform "good for America," a woman from the crowd shouted back, "What about women on welfare?"
"We believe one of the main issues in this election," Gore told the demonstrators, "is who do you want in charge of fixing the problems in order to make welfare reform work."
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