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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: Gore's character convention offensive

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Ten days ago, Texas Gov. George W. Bush put on a multicultural lovefest in Philadelphia to show the nation that the Republicans could be just as warm, caring and inclusive as the Democrats.

Now, Vice President Al Gore and the Democrats are about to prove that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as Democrats gathering in Los Angeles for their convention are being treated with a strong dose of religion, morality and character.

Welcome to Bizarro World, where each party addresses its weaknesses and hopes to neutralize its opponents' advantages.

Gore opened up his most recent celebration of morality with the selection of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Highly regarded as a moderate, even independent, legislator, Lieberman is an observant Jew who talks easily about religion and religious values.

He has teamed with former Education Secretary Bill Bennett to criticize Hollywood for its reliance on violence and sex, and he was quick to criticize President Clinton's personal behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Tapping Lieberman for his running mate was Gore's way of telling voters that he isn't at all like Bill Clinton when it comes to his family life and trustworthiness.

In turn, Lieberman praised the vice president and vouched for his character, judgment and integrity when the Connecticut senator was introduced as Gore's running mate.

Shortly after that, the Democratic National Committee lowered the boom on California Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who planned to hold a fund-raiser at the Playboy Mansion. Joe Andrew, the DNC's national chairman, apparently threatened the California Democrat with a series of punishments -- ranging from cutting her speech at the Democratic convention to withdrawing support for her reelection bid -- if she didn't move the event.

Andrew said the mansion sent the wrong message, but it's hard to believe that he acted on his own. The convention, after all, is really Gore's coronation, and the vice president is running the show here in Los Angeles. Clearly, Gore had to approve Andrew's strategy. (The strategy worked, since Sanchez ultimately moved the event to Universal City.)

In the meantime, Clinton told a gathering of ministers at the Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois that he had been forced to take a spiritual self-examination after the Lewinsky scandal, and that he was still rebuilding his family life -- and he urged that Gore not be punished for the president's transgressions.

The attention to character, values, integrity, family life and religion strongly suggest that Gore is worried about the so-called character issue. Indeed, GOP strategists insist that the Democrats' attention to those themes prove that the issue is hurting Gore, who trails Bush by double digits in most recent polls.

Gore's offensive is likely to carry over to the Democratic convention. He hopes to get out from under Bill Clinton's shadow both by inoculating himself from Clinton's greatest weakness and by putting on a convention that showcases his accomplishments and issues.

Like the GOP, the Democrats hope to put on a flawless show that presents their party as united and confident. They want to take credit for the economy and for peace, but they also want to stress the future, not the past. You'll hear a lot of talking about "building on the successes of the last eight years."

Gore hopes that the convention can both unify the Democratic base and reach out toward independents and ticket-splitters. The only way to do that is to rally the base by portraying Bush and the GOP as a danger to core values, while at the same time presenting Gore as a strong leader with principle.

But while Gore would like to neutralize the character issue in order to focus on policy contrasts with the GOP, President Clinton seems unable to fade into the background. And as long as Clinton hogs the spotlight -- even intermittently -- Gore will have a hard time closing the book on the Clinton years.


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