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Democrats Vie for Support at Florida Convention : Politics: The straw poll is the first test of strength in the ’92 presidential campaign. Its outcome has no effect on the battle for primary delegates.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

About 4 a.m. Saturday, red lights began glowing on Mickey Mouse telephones in guest rooms of the Disney World hotel that is the site of the 1991 Florida state Democratic convention. Aides to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had delivered a voice-mail message seeking support for their candidate in the presidential straw poll that dominates the convention’s weekend agenda.

Not to be outdone, backers of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, perceived as the chief rival to Clinton in the poll competition, were prowling the hotel corridors during the pre-dawn hours, slipping under doors leaflets that claimed Harkin had “the winning message for Democrats nationwide.”

Critics of the straw poll point out that its outcome will have no direct bearing on the struggle for Florida’s convention delegation in the state’s primary March 10. They argue that the poll is a waste of the candidates’ money and time.

Nevertheless, because it represents the first tangible test of strength in the 1992 Democratic presidential campaign, the poll has touched off a brisk four-way battle involving Clinton, Harkin, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas. Among them they have laid out tens of thousands of dollars making phone calls and mailing literature and videotapes to the more than 2,300 delegates who will cast their straw ballots today.

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For Clinton, the only white Southerner in the Democratic race, the poll offers a chance to solidify his claim to Dixie as his political base. For liberal Harkin, it is an opportunity to show that his fiery populist rhetoric can win backing even in the conservative South. In addition, for both men, as well as for underdogs Kerrey and Tsongas, the polling contest serves as a training exercise for the campaign organizations they will rely on in the Florida primary, when no fewer than 160 national convention delegates will be awarded.

Two other Democratic presidential candidates, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., passed up the contest, although their names will be on the ballot.

But backers of the undeclared candidacy of New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who many expect to enter the presidential competition this week, were missing no bets. Sporting “Waiting for Mario” buttons, they were urging their fellow delegates to write in Cuomo’s name on today’s ballot.

Saturday belonged to the four candidates who appeared here to address the convention’s opening session amid the hoopla traditionally associated with conventions where real votes are at stake. As each entered, music blared, placards waved and supporters paraded around the hall.

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The favored Clinton, who was the lead speaker, used the opportunity to hit back at criticism that he is too conservative, a label aides said had been spread by Harkin’s backers.

“Our solutions must not be liberal or conservative,” Clinton said. “They must be bold and different. We don’t need yesterday’s rhetoric, we need tomorrow’s solutions.”

Referring to charges heard “in the back rooms of this convention” that “old Clinton doesn’t care about working people,” Clinton claimed his record as governor of Arkansas proved the opposite. “More than any candidate in this race in either party, . . . I have worked harder and done more to get and keep good jobs, to improve education and to solve social problems,” he said.

Kerrey, faced with the possibility of finishing a weak third in today’s competition, gave what some on his staff thought was the best speech of his candidacy. He stressed the plan for health insurance that is the mainspring of his domestic agenda.

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“I know all the Democratic candidates talk about health care,” he said. “But I have a piece of legislation that I have introduced.” He said his plan would provide universal access to health care for all Americans and, paraphrasing the campaign slogan of Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, Kerrey said: “You have a right to a lawyer when you commit a crime and you have a right to health care if you are an American.”

Kerrey also linked his personal sacrifice and heroism in Vietnam, where he lost a leg and won the Medal of Honor, to his view of his responsibility as a candidate for the presidency. Referring to the hundreds of thousands of crack babies, homeless children and school dropouts, he said: “There are lives at stake in this campaign and we can save them. You saved my life,” he said, referring to his recovery from his combat wounds. “And I have an obligation to say to you that it is time for us to reach out and try to save those who will die unless we help them.”

All four candidates attacked the Bush Administration for mishandling the economy and ignoring the health care issue.

Harkin’s admirers have learned to look to him for a vigorous defense of traditional Democratic liberalism, and he did not disappoint them on this occasion. Replying to complaints about supposedly misguided Democratic policies of the past, he said: “I will not apologize. I’m going to make George Herbert Walker Bush apologize for what he has done to this country.”

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Mindful of charges that he is too liberal to do well in the South in the general election, Harkin said: “I am not a regional candidate. I am a national candidate and intend to campaign in Florida and in every state of the union.”

As evidence of his appeal, he cited his success in Iowa running in Republican areas and against strong Republican candidates, and he pointed out that his recent filing with the Federal Election Commission showed that he had taken in $1.1 million in matchable campaign contributions, about twice as much as his nearest rival.

Tsongas, who spoke last and is believed to be running fourth in the straw poll competition, first paid tribute to traditional Democratic liberal beliefs on such issues as civil rights and women’s rights. But then he warned the delegates, “The brutal fact is that the American people don’t trust us with the economy.

“We have to learn some pretty fundamental truths. If you are going to be pro-jobs, you have to be pro-business, because that’s where the jobs come from,” said Tsongas, who has depicted himself as “an economic Paul Revere.”

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“We must be the party of economic growth, of economic nationalism, of economic patriotism, " he said. And he urged Democrats to adopt a new economic strategy based on the importance of investment in such areas as plants and equipment, research and development and human resources.


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