Lake Buena Vista, Fla. -- AT THE Florida Democratic convention here last weekend Bill Clinton was given the full-celebrity treatment. Everywhere he went he was mobbed by television camera crews and delegates grasping for a piece of him. It was clear that for Democratic activists, the Arkansas governor has become at least a nominal front runner for the party's presidential nomination.
The Florida Democrats ratified that view in a straw vote on the final day of the convention by giving Clinton a triumph in which he exceeded most expectations with 54 percent to 31 percent for Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the only other candidate to make a serious effort here.
Unfortunately for Clinton, he apparently took all this adulation seriously. Five hours after the straw vote, he behaved like a front runner in the first televised debate, holding himself pointedly "above the fray," as one of his consultants put it.
But Clinton and his advisers are making a serious mistake if they imagine that a meaningful or lasting pecking order has been established among the Democrats, except perhaps here in Florida, on the strength of the glowing press reports on his performance over the past few weeks. On the contrary, the news out of the debate, if any, was that Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, an also-ran in the straw poll here, was at least the marginal winner.
Clinton's success here in Florida was important in some respects even if the vote was intrinsically unimportant. He demonstrated he has an organization that can deliver, an important consideration to party activists comparing candidates. He gave another strong speech that had the delegates cheering repeatedly. And he demonstrated that he can attract support among the most liberal regulars -- the delegates here were
far more liberal than the electorate -- despite his identification as the "southern" and "conservative" candidate in the field. He should be able to exploit his success in fund-raising, in which he already is scoring an impressive $700,000 a week.
Thus, it may not be surprising that Clinton behaved in the debate with a front runner's caution, presenting himself as a bemused a bystander in some of the most heated moments of the 90-minute confrontation. But Clinton has made only a beginning. Straw votes, opinion poll figures and fund-raising success pale into insignificance against the results of the first primary in New Hampshire Feb. 18. Winning that primary will require a concentrated, full-court press for at least the seven weeks after New Year's Day.
In a sense, the real winner of the weekend may have been Kerrey, who entered the competition last fall with high expectations among his followers that he would demonstrate the kind of personal charisma that would override his limited credentials as a one-term governor of Nebraska and freshman senator. But the growing consensus among political activists had been that Kerrey was a disappointing candidate who seemed to lack either force or a coherent message. He got especially bad marks for a speech to Democratic state leaders in Chicago in which he dwelled on the health care issue extensively enough so he never projected a broader image.
But Kerrey made a deliberate change in his speech here, combining red-meat attacks on President Bush with a broader vision of his own goals and closing with his personal history as someone grievously wounded in Vietnam who learned first-hand the importance of government programs to those in need. Then the Nebraska Democrat followed up with a strong performance in the debate in which he both reminded the broader audience of his personal history and showed a hard edge in rebutting Jerry Brown's insistence that everyone but Brown is tarnished by campaign money.
Kerrey's demand to know whether Brown was saying he had been "bought and paid for" made a sound bite that was catnip for the television networks. The result is a new conventional wisdom among political professionals that Kerrey may have some special zing, after all.
The operative point, however, is that, even without Mario Cuomo yet in the field, it is too early for any of these Democrats to imagine they have established some lasting position in the competition.
Bill Clinton scored a big success here. But only a few hours later he raised new questions about his candidacy that he will be obliged to answer in the weeks ahead. Winning a Democratic presidential nomination is never easy.