Far from special prosecutors and fevered Beltway speculators, state Democratic activists gathered Saturday in downtown Los Angeles to cheer all things Clinton and determinedly disavow the merest speck of presidential scandal.
Led by Vice President Al Gore, who delivered a thumping self-tribute to the administration's accomplishments, the California Democratic Party convention became a combination tent revival, pep rally and self-esteem seminar. The only references to the swirl of sexual misconduct allegations surrounding President Clinton were insistently defiant ones.
"Democrats, don't be ashamed," party Chairman Art Torres said in welcoming more than 1,300 delegates to the Westin Bonaventure. "Democrats, don't feel sorry for yourselves, because history and a record of achievement is on our side--no matter what those little people say in Washington, with their pointed noses and sharpened little pencils."
Besides hissing at Republicans and belittling Clinton's other tormentors, convention delegates heard Saturday from their new leaders in the state Legislature, sampled speeches from a slew of statewide candidates and surveyed a field of gubernatorial hopefuls, who plied them with food and drink in a smorgasbord of late-night schmoozing.
The candidates--businessman Al Checchi, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and Torrance Rep. Jane Harman--will address delegates this morning, sharing a stage for the first time in the gubernatorial campaign.
The session Saturday was highlighted by the appearance of Gore, who extolled the administration's accomplishments while giving the GOP not the slightest credit for California's booming economy or plunging crime rate.
Citing everything from the balanced federal budget--a bipartisan achievement--to the federal ban on assault weapons to last year's El Nino meeting in Santa Monica, Gore said: "We have a change for the better since these new policies--Democratic policies--have been put in place."
Plunging into state politics, the vice president voiced strong opposition to Proposition 226, the June ballot measure that would require union members to annually approve the use of their dues for political purposes. "We will not let any Republican gimmicks disguised as so-called campaign reform take away the right of workers to have their voices be heard in the political process," Gore said, to one of several sustained ovations.
He drew another ovation when he assailed Republican sensitivities, asserting that the GOP "disparaged legal immigrants, insulted Latinos," apparently by supporting Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-illegal immigration initiative. "We're the party of inclusion," Gore shouted over the roar of delegates. "We're the party of the future. Everyone's welcome."
Gore began by mentioning that this was his fourth trip to California in six weeks, a frequency that underscores the importance of the state to his presidential hopes two years hence. As he approached the podium, "Gore 2000" signs arose from the audience; when he left, he was lauded by Torres as "God willing, our next president."
Later, Gore addressed the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce, where he promoted the president's trip to Africa, and toured an exhibit of Los Angeles Police Department computers. He planned to attend an event sponsored by pro-Israeli activists, followed by a private dinner with supporters at the Getty Center, before returning to Washington.
Preceding Gore on the convention program was Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who faces three Republican opponents in her bid for reelection and who reveled in her role as scrappy underdog. "They call me every name in the book," Boxer said of her opponents. "But with your help, on Nov. 3, they'll have to call me senator."
Like Gore, Boxer spoke not a word about the allegations of sexual misconduct involving the president, even taking the unusual step of declining to meet with reporters after her speech. In the past, Boxer has said the allegations against Clinton should be taken seriously, even as she has defended his performance as president.
Her staff cited a leg injury as the reason she refused to meet reporters Saturday, though the senator began her appearance by shimmying on stage to the sounds of singer James Brown and dancing off to the pulsing beat of Sister Sledge.
Although unspoken, the melange of charges and innuendo beclouding the Clinton administration were an unmistakable subtext to the weekend-long Democratic gathering.
"We have an economy doing well because we have a president who is a real Democrat," Rep. Maxine Waters of South-Central Los Angeles said in one of the day's most fiery speeches. "Why do you think they're coming after him?
"I support President Bill Clinton," Waters continued, "Stand up for President Bill Clinton." And the audience followed her cue.
With the gubernatorial hopefuls expected to dominate today's session, much of the partisan firepower was aimed at the June ballot initiatives opposed by Democrats.
State Senate President John Burton of San Francisco, in a luncheon speech, reminded delegates that the anti-union measure and an initiative to radically curb bilingual education are popular with Californians, heightening the difficulties Democrats face in defeating them.
The anti-union measure in particular strikes fear in the pocketbooks of Democrats, who have benefited from labor's profligate spending over the years. "Labor has been there for us," Burton said. "We must be there for them."
Times staff writer Jonathan Peterson contributed to this story.