CHICAGO -- Vowing that "the best is yet to come," Bill Clinton gained his party's nomination last night for a second term as president.
Clinton, the first Democratic president in more than half a century to gain renomination without opposition, made his triumphant entry into the convention city after a four-day railroad jaunt across the Midwest.
Saying he did not wish to upstage his own acceptance speech to the convention this evening, Clinton told a welcoming rally at a Chicago college ball field: "Just let's say the best is yet to come, the best days of America, the best days of the Clinton-Gore administration, the best days of our efforts together, to lift up our country and move forward."
With Clinton's nomination a foregone conclusion, Democratic convention planners moved Vice President Al Gore's speech to last night's prime TV time, 24 hours before he will be formally renominated himself.
On the same evening that the Democratic Party chairman issued a plea for civility in the fall campaign, a parade of speakers led by Gore unleashed a fusillade of criticism against Republican nominee Bob Dole and his party.
"In his speech from San Diego, Senator Dole offered himself as a bridge to the past. Tonight, Bill Clinton and I offer ourselves as a bridge to the future," said Gore, to a roar of approval from delegates chanting "Four More Years" and waving thousands of red signs bearing Gore's name.
Gore described the Republicans as the backward-looking "party memory" and Dole as a mean-spirited pessi- mist who "attacked his opponent's wife," referring to the GOP nominee's criticism of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The vice president warned that if Dole wins the presidency, he would "rubber-stamp" the conservative agenda of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress.
"But we won't let them," Gore declared, in a refrain repeatedly echoed by the United Center crowd of about 15,000.
In a prolonged personal aside, aimed at reinforcing the administration's attack on the tobacco industry, Gore told the delegates of the death from lung cancer, in the mid-1980s, of his only sibling, his sister Nancy Gore Hunger.
"I loved her more than life itself," said Gore, who once grew tobacco on his Tennessee farm.
As the huge arena fell silent, Gore told the spellbound crowd of his sister's suffering and the powerful painkillers used to treat her illness.
"She could barely retain consciousness," he said in a halting voice. "We sometimes didn't know if she could hear what we were saying, or recognize us
"I knelt by her bed and held her hand. And in a very short time her breathing became labored, and then she breathed her last breath.
"Tomorrow morning, another 13-year-old girl will start smoking. I love her, too. Three thousand young people in America will start smoking tomorrow. One thousand of them will die a death not unlike my sister's.
"And that is why," he said, in a whisper, "until I draw my last breath I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."
Gore's emotional recollection was reminiscent of his retelling, at the 1992 convention, of the near-fatal injuries suffered by his son Albert III in an auto accident outside Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. At the time, Gore was criticized for exploiting family tragedy for political gain.
Last night Gore dug through Dole's lengthy Senate voting record to depict him as an opponent of the changes wrought by government over the past 30 years.
"We remember that he voted against the creation of Medicare, against the creation of Medicaid, against the Clean Air Act, against Head Start, against the Peace Corps in the '60s and AmeriCorps in the '90s. He even voted against the funds to send a man to the moon," said Gore.
"If he's the most optimistic man in America," he continued, referring to Dole's description of himself, "I'd hate to see the pessimists."
Gore, whose own presidential hopes for 2000 are tied to Clinton's fortunes, extolled the accomplishments of the man who chose him as his running mate four years ago.
Under Clinton, he said, America is "not just better off, but better Let there be no doubt. The future lies with the party of hope, and the man from Hope (Ark.) who leads it."
Gore also poked fun at his own reputation for stiffness, offering what he jokingly called "the Al Gore version of the Macarena," the dance craze that swept the convention this week. Gore then stood stock still at the microphone, doing nothing, to the delegates' delight.
Tonight, Clinton will deliver his acceptance speech, which aides have characterized as a second State of the Union message, outlining his agenda for a second term. It is expected to contain a laundry list of new proposals, including some sort of tax cut, though not on the scale of the 15 percent across-the-board tax break proposed by Dole.