NEW YORK -- The acceptance speech is an important ritual for any presidential candidate. For Bill Clinton, the speech he gives in Madison Square Garden tonight may be more than important and perhaps even defining.
The weight given to acceptance speeches is based on the premise that, as polling data consistently show, most voters don't pay much attention to any presidential campaign until the conventions choose the nominees. For the first time, the candidate commands a national audience that is paying some attention to what he has to say.
Thus, for example, Democrats were buoyed four years ago when Michael S. Dukakis delivered a speech at Atlanta that was both compassionate and forceful. As it turned out, it was a misleading indicator of things to come, but at the time it energized his party and gave him an instant rise in public approval.
For Mr. Clinton the pressure has been heightened immensely by the fact that he accepts the presidential nomination still carrying heavy political baggage from the primary campaign because of the controversies over his personal history. Those negatives have declined markedly in the last few weeks, but they are still a factor that Mr. Dukakis did not have to confront when he spoke in 1988.
The result is that the Arkansas governor has a dual task tonight. He must introduce himself to many voters who will be forming their first impressions of him. At the same time, he must hope to persuade others that he is more acceptable than they may have imagined from all the alarums and excursions over Gennifer Flowers, his draft status and the question of when and how he smoked marijuana.
Such "corrections" are eminently possible. Four years ago, for jTC example, candidate George Bush delivered an acceptance speech at New Orleans that was powerful enough to neutralize his image as a "wimp" out of his depth in the presidential campaign.
Republican strategists were convinced after the 1988 campaign that the acceptance speech was indeed a "defining moment" that made his triumph possible.
Mr. Clinton's speech is most important, of course, because of the huge television audience he will reach. But in his case, there are two special constituencies who must be targeted.
One obviously is the population of activist Democrats both in the convention hall and watching across the country. Once Paul E. Tsongas was eliminated as a rival in early April, Mr. Clinton never faced the kind of primary competition that allowed him to demonstrate fully his abilities as a candidate. Beating up Jerry Brown every Tuesday impressed no one in the political community.
Democrats also need to see that he has the tools to be able to play on even terms with a candidate as harsh as George Bush already has shown he can be. There is no demand in the party for another Michael Dukakis turning the other cheek. On the contrary, the central question about Mr. Clinton all year has been whether he is "tough enough" to handle a harsh Republican campaign focused on his personal vulnerabilities.
Mr. Clinton's assignment in dealing with his own party is further complicated by the stress he is putting on redefining the party in his own image as a "moderate" Democrat who talks a lot about "responsibility" and not a great deal about the underclass.
Liberals in general are still waiting to be sure that he is not only a potential winner but a candidate they can support with full-throated enthusiasm.
Secondly, there is the special circumstance of a three-way campaign and the Ross Perot candidacy. There are signs, although they may be temporary and misleading, that Mr. Perot's campaign is losing some steam.
But Mr. Clinton needs to use his speech tonight to demonstrate that he is an acceptable alternative to those voters who want "change" -- the magic word in the politics of 1992.
If voters are prepared to leave Mr. Perot, the question becomes whether they are willing to swallow Mr. Clinton as the palatable alternative.
There is also the question of the risk voters are taking with any challenger running against an incumbent president. Such a candidate not only must make his case but persuade the electorate he has the stature and the gravitas to seem to be safe to put into the White House.