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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: The First Family of the Democratic Party

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- The Republicans have their Bushes and Tafts, and the two major parties share the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers. But the first family of the Democratic Party -- and, many would say, of the nation -- is the Kennedys.

It's impossible to go to a Democratic convention without thinking about the Kennedy clan. This year, that's especially the case.

John F. Kennedy was nominated for president in Los Angeles in 1960, and Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential bid was cut short when he was gunned down in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles just after winning the California presidential primary.

Tuesday evening is the Kennedys' moment at this convention, with Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, daughter of the late president, and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy speaking during prime time.

If the "Democratic base" is indeed still weak this year, the Kennedys should take care of that. Ted Kennedy is still an icon to party liberals, many of whom would prefer that Vice President Al Gore had selected a more traditional Democrat rather than Sen. Joe Lieberman, a proud member of the party's more moderate Democratic Leadership Council wing. If the Massachusetts senator can't rally the troops and draw sharp ideological contrasts between Gore and Bush, then nobody can.

In addition, by turning over about 20 minutes to Caroline Schlossberg and Sen. Kennedy, the Democrats hope some of the family's magic may rub off on Al Gore.

Gore, after all, is trying to capture that electric idealism of Jack Kennedy and the 1960 Democratic campaign. California is a perfect place for that, with its glitz and celebrity culture, its reputation for creating trends and making stars. And like John Kennedy 40 years ago, Gore is trying to cast himself as a force for change, as a Democrat of the future, not the past.

But the Kennedy analogy only goes so far for the vice president. In some respects, George W. Bush fits the Kennedy role better than does Gore.

Bush, for example, is no Richard Nixon. The Texas governor has a relaxed, natural air about him that is reminiscent of President Kennedy. Gore seems more uptight and premeditated.

And Kennedy could more easily portray himself as a vehicle for change. After all, he wasn't part of the incumbent administration, so he could run a purely change-oriented message.

Gore doesn't have the luxury. Since he's trying to take credit for the accomplishments of the past eight years, he can't exactly run a Kennedy-like campaign of pure change.

Bush, on the other hand, can echo Kennedy's call in 1960 for a new vision, a new start. He doesn't need to worry that in calling for change he is implicitly criticizing President Clinton.

Finally, the 1960 election was like the 2000 contest so far in that issues seemed to take a back seat to personality. Kennedy and Nixon disagreed on some matters, but the contrast wasn't great. Similarly this year, many of the distinctions between Bush and Gore are blurred. Kennedy's personality was, therefore, a key factor in his win, just as Bush's personality has been an important factor in his early lead in the race.

The Kennedy name is still magic in Democratic circles, and Al Gore needs Sen. Ted Kennedy to give him a rousing and enthusiastic endorsement. But Al Gore is going to have to win this election on his own, and he'll likely have to do so by stressing his own strengths, not Jack or Ted Kennedy's.



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Tuesday, August 15, 2000


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