CLEVELAND -- Centrist Democrats searching for a more "mainstream" message for their party unexpectedly turned up a potential new presidential contender yesterday: Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia.
After a speech at the Democratic Leadership Council's annual convention here, Mr. Rockefeller, 53, disclosed that he was reconsidering an earlier decision not to run in 1992.
"I'm looking at the situation," he told reporters. "The door is a little more open to me."
Also addressing the meeting of moderate-to-conservative Democrats were other presidential possibilities: Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Missouri Representative Richard A. Gephardt and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, the only announced candidate.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, whose state will choose the first 1992 convention delegates, is reported to be considering a run, as is former Sen. George S. McGovern and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo also is mentioned often as a possible contender.
The lengthening list of Democratic hopefuls follows closely upon President Bush's hospitalization last weekend for a heart problem that, while apparently minor, has apparently shocked many Democrats out of their postwar political lethargy.
New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Chris Spirou said Mr. Bush's health could well make other Democrats reconsider their hopes for winning the White House in 1992.
"You're going to see that as one of the things that will make them rethink," Mr. Spirou predicted.
Mr. Rockefeller, who announced in March that he would not be a candidate, heatedly denied that Mr. Bush's heart problem was a factor in his thinking, although he said he had "prayed more strongly for President Bush's recovery" after seeing Vice President Dan Quayle on television over the weekend.
His surprise announcement enlivened the closing hours of a sometimes-contentious two-day gathering of Democratic officials who want to
lure back middle-class voters in order to end the party's losing streak in presidential politics.
The conference, held in the Cleveland Convention Center, had the trappings of a presidential nominating convention, including bTC delegates from all 50 states, speeches by leading national politicians and noisy, late-night cocktail parties.
It turned out, however, that many of the 800 "delegates" were actually Washington-based business lobbyists, including some Republicans, who helped pick up the tab for the event in exchange for a chance to rub elbows with the assembled senators, congressmen and governors.
The effort to move the party into the political center has put the Democratic Leadership Council in the middle of a political firestorm and has heightened historic divisions within the party. Mr. Clinton, the DLC chairman, suggested last month that his group was trying to supplant the Democratic National Committee as the party's pre-eminent organization, while another DLC official said presidential hopefuls Jackson and McGovern weren't invited to speak because they represented the discredited liberal politics of the past.
Mr. Jackson, runner-up in the 1988 Democratic presidential race, retaliated by spending most of Sunday and Monday in the Cleveland area, stealing media attention from the DLC as he criticized the group's "new choice" theme, which he called a code word for exclusion.
Representatives of organized labor, another Democratic mainstay, also stayed away, although union members distributed leaflets outside the convention center condemning the DLC's support for a free-trade agreement with Mexico that labor says will cost Americans jobs. At a cross-town rally sponsored by the United Auto Workers, union members waved blue and white signs reading, "One G.O.P. is enough."
The criticism was prompted by a series of DLC resolutions criticizing the Democrats' past support for ineffective government programs and special-interest politics, and calling for strict new limits on government spending and supporting the use of military force abroad.
In a conciliatory vein, national party Chairman Ronald Brown was warmly received at an appearance designed to smooth ruffled feelings.