NEW YORK -- Four years ago, the Democratic Party trooped to its national convention in Atlanta in the hope of combating the view, anathema in the South, that it remained a vehicle of Northern liberals. Then it proceeded to nominate Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts as its standard-bearer.
Dixie tongues clucked that the Democrats were doomed once again to defeat -- for the fifth time in six presidential elections -- and they were right. George Bush and the Republicans successfully buried Mr. Dukakis by painting him as yet another tax-and-spend, permissive liberal.
Today, although the 1992 Democratic National Convention is opening in a bastion of Northern liberalism, those clucking tongues have been replaced by confident Southern voices insisting that the party has finally seen the light.
By selecting Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas as its presidential nominee, they argue, the party can now blunt that earlier kind of assault and associate itself with the more moderate mainstream of American political thought. And Mr. Clinton's choice of another Southerner, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, as his running mate further emphasizes the tilt away from Northern liberalism.
Preaching "responsibility" along with opportunity, Mr. Clinton aims to swap the old giveaway image of the Democratic Party for one of a still-compassionate but hard-nosed political engine dedicated to improving the well-being of all Americans, not just the poor.
The party's tradition as the champion of the downtrodden remains, however, and continues to be a magnet for support from the coalition of blue-collar workers and blacks and other minorities that has constituted its core from the earliest New Deal days.
That core support was seriously eroded in the 1980s as blue-collar voters switched to Ronald Reagan and stayed with his Republican successor in 1988. Getting these Reagan Democrats back has been a key objective of the party's national committee chairman, Ronald H. Brown, and of Mr. Clinton. These voters are even more essential in the context of the three-way race that has emerged through the Ross Perot phenomenon.
The first objective for Mr. Clinton, as for President Bush, must be to hold on to his base constituency against the siren song of Mr. Perot. So the trick for Mr. Clinton as the new Democratic leader is to present the party's new look without losing the old support.
In any event, the party that will nominate the Arkansan here Wednesday will certainly offer television viewers a more moderate image than the one conveyed four years ago when it chose Mr. Dukakis or eight years ago when it anointed former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, openly warning of new taxes. The more outspoken liberal voices will be heard, to be sure, but in subordinate roles.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the scourge of Mr. Dukakis in 1988 and Mr. Mondale in 1984 when he pressured them to take more liberal platform stands under undefined threats of non-cooperation, has been largely blunted by Mr. Clinton. He demonstrated in the primaries considerable support among black voters in his own right, and he has not shied from standing up to Mr. Jackson.
The civil rights leader finally endorsed the ticket Saturday night after speculation that his endorsement was the price he would have to pay to address the convention, which he will do tomorrow night.
At the same time, however, he expressed considerable dissatisfaction with Mr. Clinton, saying on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" yesterday that the governor's campaign tactics had "insulted and infuriated a lot of people." He vowed to "push the party from within and without" to address the social needs he has argued have been neglected.
Mr. Brown said, "Those are the kind of comments that I would hope would not be made when our party is more united than it has been in two decades."
Mr. Clinton, for his part, elected to brush Mr. Jackson's criticism aside. "I welcome Reverend Jackson's support and look forward to working with him in the coming months," he said in a formal statement.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, carrying his losing fight for the nomination into the convention, has failed to muster enough support to get a floor hearing for his "humility agenda" -- calling on Democrats in Congress to reject pay raises and sharply limit campaign fund raising. He is likely to be little more than an irritant here.
As of last night, the Californian was still holding off on endorsing Mr. Clinton. After what he described as "a very friendly conversation" with Mr. Clinton on his own reform agenda, he told an outdoor rally of supporters: "Things are moving in a positive direction but not at the rate of speed some in the party would like."
That remark didn't sit well with the national committee chairman. "Jerry Brown has got to make some decisions about whether he is with the team," Chairman Brown said. He indicated that the former governor would have to endorse the ticket first if he wanted to address the convention this week.