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Democrats Battle GOP War Gains

TIMES POLITICAL WRITERS

Determined to counter any political advantage acquired by Republicans through President Bush’s popular handling of the Persian Gulf War, California Democrats Saturday sought to shift attention to the nation’s pressing domestic concerns.

But the war, this year’s sweeping political dynamic, dictated the themes of the annual Democratic Party gathering here, much as the party fears it could dictate the terms of the 1992 elections.

Party leaders unanimously attempted to muffle GOP predictions that euphoria over the war’s swift conclusion would lead voters to support Republicans, who favored the use of force in the Gulf. Nationally and in California, Republicans have vowed retribution on elected Democrats who opposed Bush’s desire to use force against Saddam Hussein. In a congressional vote Jan. 12, most Democrats backed continued sanctions against Iraq over the use of force.

“Our victory in the Persian Gulf was not a Republican victory, not a Democratic victory, but a victory for all America,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown in a speech to the 1,716 delegates. “We silenced the Scud missiles that were aimed at Israel and Saudi Arabia,” he added. “Now . . . it is time to silence the Scud missiles of crime and drugs, of inadequate housing, education, health care.”

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The convention, which ends today, served to showcase six announced or expected candidates for the two U.S. Senate seats up for election in 1992. One after the other, each echoed the war refrain; each promised to champion the rights of returning U.S. soldiers.

“All returning veterans, women and men, should come home to a grateful America,” said state Controller Gray Davis, who said he will announce in two weeks whether he is running for the Senate.

“All reservists called on to serve in the Middle East deserve their jobs back with full compensation. No American veteran should ever come home to a bleaker future.”

Publicly, the Democratic leaders shied away from criticizing Bush’s wartime decisions. But there was no such moratorium concerning the Administration’s prewar behavior. Chief among the targets was the military support given Iraq by two successive Republican administrations.

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“Let them (U.S. soldiers) come home to an America that will never again send its soldiers into battle against arms supplied by America,” said Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, a Senate candidate.

More partisan were gibes at Bush’s domestic priorities. Time after time, Democrats signaled their desire to fight 1992’s electoral battles on the turf that has sustained their past political victories.

“This Administration has no domestic agenda,” Brown said. “It believes only in the policy of pep rallies; it has those celebrations every now and then about domestic policy but no action.”

California Democrats--and several national counterparts who came west for the convention--emphasized traditional political goals, including abortion rights, health care and environmental protection. They sniped at Bush’s veto of the 1990 Civil Rights Restoration Act and decried the rickety shape of the nation’s economy.

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Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, the Senate majority leader, challenged Bush to help Americans “put our own house in order.” His words were meant to tweak Bush about his frequently expressed desire to form “a new world order.”

The Gulf War cease-fire, occurring just two days before Democrats gathered here, appeared to split the party’s internal momentum. While some officials were virtually ignoring the war’s political impact to emphasize domestic issues, others were trying to head off any lasting characterization of Democrats as militarily soft for opposing the war.

Those who favored sanctions before the war flatly declared that the same result--victory--would have been achieved without the use of force.

“I believe that sanctions were working,” said former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who resigned as party chairman this weekend to run for the Senate.

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“I think the fact that those Iraqi soldiers deserted in the numbers they did (was) at least an indication that with powerful sanctions and the unanimity of the United Nations that we could have prevailed with a dramatically lower cost in human life.”

But the defensive posture added to a sense of gloom that pervaded the proceedings. Democratic National Committee Chairman Brown, at one point, pleaded with the delegates to believe in themselves--lest no one else believe in them and by extension, in the party’s candidates.

Outgoing state party chairman Edmund G. Brown Jr. issued a blunt, even bleak assessment of the troubles facing Democrats, whose share of California voters continues to erode.

“Our party faces a crisis of spirit,” Brown declared. “The party of ideas, of change, of reform, of larger common purpose is seen by too many Americans, particularly those who have stopped voting, as the protector of the status quo.”

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But there were upbeat moments as well. The Senate candidates used the convention as the backdrop for campaign-style pep rallies, even though it is a long 20 months before Election Day.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Boxer of Greenbrae, in Marin County, who had previously announced that she is running for the Senate, declared Saturday that she would seek the six-year seat being vacated by the retiring Alan Cranston. And she tried out an expected campaign theme in her speech: “We have sacrificed enough,” Boxer said. “It is time for America.”

So too did former Gov. Brown, who peppered his comments with references to “economic populism” and urged disenfranchised voters to “fight back” with him.

Brown, Boxer and McCarthy are certain candidates for the Democratic nomination for the Cranston seat, along with U.S. Rep. Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento. Matsui, a Japanese-American, delivered an urgent appeal that the party reach out to the immigrants and minorities who once formed its backbone.

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“If our party fails this challenge, it will fall into disarray and become a second-class party for decades to come,” Matsui said.

Dianne Feinstein, the former San Francisco mayor and 1992 Senate candidate, will address the delegates today. Former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson also is scheduled to speak.

Delegates today will consider a proposal that would supplement the 1992 primary with caucuses, at which 30% of the state’s Democratic delegates would be chosen.


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