Chicago -- Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas scored a ten-strike here over the weekend, dazzling Democratic leaders with a speech that made those of his five rivals for the presidential nomination pale by comparison. Indeed, his performance was strong enough to inspire no little corridor conversation about whether he might not even be a match for the reputed political giant waiting in the wings, Mario Cuomo. How much direct benefit Clinton may enjoy is an open question because the television networks gave the event only a brush block of attention.
But the Clinton campaign operation was savvy enough to immediately circulate fax copies of rave reviews in major newspapers. And there is no question the party leaders who heard him have gone home bearing the message that the Arkansas Democrat delivered what Robert Slagle, the Democratic chairman in Texas, called "a big-time speech."
Clinton's success here was made all the more striking because of the makeup of his audience the Association of Democratic State Chairs and members of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee. Because of his history as chairman of the rival moderate-to-conservative Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton began facing no little skepticism from liberal activists, some of it growing out of Sen. Tom Harkin's pointed reference to "a warmed-over Republican."
But when the question was raised, Clinton responded with some force and to strong applause that he was "a Democrat by heritage, instinct and conviction." The Democrats laughed when added: "My granddaddy thought when he died he was going to Roosevelt." And they applauded again when, in an obvious thrust at Harkin, he said: "These people call me a Republican because I want to change and push this party into the future, not pull it to the right or left."
The sniping from Harkin reflects a continuing concern about Clinton among some of the most liberal Democrats uneasy about his insistence that welfare recipients should show "responsibility" in their own behavior by, for example, being willing to take jobs to qualify for benefits. Clinton attempts to sugarcoat that aspect of his message by making the same demand for "responsibility" by those "at the top" of the economic ladder such as executives who escape with golden parachutes when their employees suffer from business failures.
But there are some Democrats for whom any discussion of welfare is too touchy, as Cuomo suggested in criticizing Clinton recently. Their concern is that it will be seen as code for criticism of blacks, as was the case in the David Duke campaign in Louisiana. But it is an integral part of Clinton's fundamental message that the Democratic Party needs to make a connection with working-class voters who have defected to Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the last three elections.
The tension is obvious between Clinton and Harkin, who continues to preach that the Democrats have nothing for which they should apologize. But it may be only a forerunner of a more politically significant confrontation between Clinton and Cuomo if the latter enters the competition. Southern Democrats here were all reporting that either Clinton or Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, the Medal of Honor winner who lost a leg in Vietnam, could sell in their states. But they made no bones about their doubts about either Harkin or Cuomo.
And Clinton clearly outscored Kerrey with these regulars by giving a speech here that combined substantive discussion of ++ such key issues as education, health care and taxes with humor and tough partisan criticism of President Bush. By contrast, Kerrey's speech, tightly focused on the health-care issue, received a perfunctorily polite reception.
The result is the prospect of an increasingly polarized Democratic Party in the three months left before the first primary in New Hampshire between Clinton on the one hand and either Harkin or Cuomo on the other. A month ago no one would have imagined that Cuomo would be facing serious competition. But Clinton's performance here was impressive enough to make that question legitimate.
No one would suggest that a pecking order among the Democrats has been established by one candidate cattle show. Kerrey may refine his message to the point that he fulfills the promise his supporters see in him. When televised debates begin next month Mario Cuomo may blow them all away. But Bill Clinton has demonstrated he is a serious player.