Clinton issues fiery call to Democrats, Perot backers DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

July 17, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

NEW YORK -- Gov. Bill Clinton reached out last night to stunned backers of billionaire Ross Perot, offering himself as an agent of change who would forge a "new covenant" between Americans and their government.

The Democratic nominee capped a tumultuous political day with a marathon, 53-minute acceptance speech that cast him as a reformer burning to put government to work on behalf of an overburdened middle class.

"George Bush, if you won't use your power to help America, step aside. I will," declared the 45-year-old Arkansas governor, setting off chants of "We want Bill" on the floor of Madison Square Garden from thousands of delegates waving white and blue "Clinton" pennants.

Mr. Bush was the target of the Democrat's barbs, but it was Mr. Perot who tossed the bomb that shattered the framework of the '92 contest.

A one-day national poll, taken after the Perot announcement, showed Mr. Clinton with a 23-point edge over Mr. Bush, by far his largest lead of the campaign. The margin of error in the CNN-Gallup Poll of 600 voting-age Americans was 5 percentage points.

As their strategists scrambled to draw new general election plans, Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton issued personal appeals to the millions of bitter and demoralized Perot supporters, who suddenly found themselves without a candidate.

"We share the same principles with many of those people, and we're going to work hard to win them over," said Mr. Bush, interrupting a backcountry fishing vacation in Wyoming's Wind River range to comment on the Perot withdrawal.

Mr. Clinton, who, like the president, phoned Mr. Perot yesterday after the Texan made his announcement, hastily rewrote his speech to take the changed circumstances into account.

The Perot withdrawal, unthinkable until the last few days, threatened to overshadow the climactic closing day of an unusually harmonious Democratic convention.

The shrinking of the '92 race to a two-man contest left Mr. Clinton exposed as the lone target of Republican political attacks, which helped bring Mr. Perot down. But it also gave the Democratic nominee millions of potential new converts to reach last night.

Mr. Clinton took special note of Mr. Perot's praise for the "brilliant job" the Democrats had done in revitalizing their party -- a near-endorsement that gives an enormous boost to Mr. Clinton attempts to sell himself to voters as a new-style Democrat.

To Mr. Perot's "army of patriots for change," Mr. Clinton extended a warm welcome.

"Tonight I say to them, join us," he said. "And together we will revitalize America."

His speech, considered by his strategists to be the most important event of the four-day convention, ran more than twice as long as anticipated, prompting comparisons to his windy, 35-minute nominating speech at the 1988 convention.

Mr. Clinton began his remarks by joking that he ran for president this year in order to "finish that speech I started four years ago."

Except for an extended personal reference at the outset, the address was a rehash of the stump speeches he has been giving for the past year. And like them, it touched on a lengthy list of themes and proposals while lacking a single clear message.

His remarks did not energize the convention crowd as much several speakers earlier in the week, particularly New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

Mr. Clinton's address followed the acceptance speech of his running mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, who was formally nominated for vice president last night by Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Recalling Mr. Gore's bedside vigil at Johns Hopkins Hospital following a near-fatal 1989 traffic accident in Baltimore involving his 6-year-old son, Albert III, Ms. Mikulski said, "Young Al is better now, in large part because Al Gore knew he had a bigger job than being a senator. It's called being a dad."

Ms. Mikulski's high profile at this year's convention underscores the belief of Democratic leaders that the women's vote could prove decisive in November.

Mr. Gore, who stepped onto the podium to the pulsing rhythm of Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al," also took note of the accident, using it as a metaphor for the need to revive American democracy. He recalled in graphic detail how his son "was thrown 30 feet through the air" when he was struck by a car outside Memorial Stadium, "and scraped another 20 feet on the pavement after he hit the ground."

As total silence fell over the overflow convention audience -- and the network television cameras zeroed in on several teary-eyed delegates -- Mr. Gore continued: "I ran to his side and held him and called his name, but he was limp and still, without breath or pulse. His eyes were open only with the empty stare of death, and we prayed, the two of us, there in the gutter, with only my voice."

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