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Keeping 'sideshows' from stealing spotlight in San Francisco

Nominating a presidential candidate will be only part of the show here next month, but Democratic Convention planners want to make sure it's the main event. Everyone inside and outside Moscone Center will be aiming for a share of the prime-time coverage that will be generated by a media corps comprising more than two reporters for every convention delegate.

Keeping the attention of the news media from wandering to the ''sideshows'' outside the main tent without impinging on the right of free speech is a delicate public-relations task that falls to the convention's security officials.

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Competition for media attention begins on convention eve, July 15, when San Francisco labor union and gay rights organizations plan separate marches. Each demonstration is expected to involve some 100,000 people and both will end up in front of the convention center, says a police spokesman who has handled demonstration permit applications.

Other activities planned to take advantage of the convention include a peace and environmental coalition march and convention, a Moral Majority conference, and rallies by Jesse Jackson supporters and Ku Klux Klan members.

Seeking to ensure a minimum of disruption, security officials try to accommodate, and even seek out, groups that want a share of the limelight. It's an ironic trade-off that has been convention tradition since riots disrupted the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Convention personnel privately cite that event as a standard of measure for bad security.

''If everything goes well, you'll never hear about us,'' says Dick Murphy, chairman of the Democratic Party's security advisory committee. He coordinates the multiagency security plan that is the convention's biggest budget item (more than $3 million).

Though the official party line is that the Democrats neither promote nor discourage protests, Mr. Murphy says police and convention security officials have been talking with special-interest groups for the past year. With this approach, demonstrations, a part of the American political process, have become less a matter of spontaneity than application of business-school theory.

''A Vision of America at Peace,'' an umbrella group for a number of peace and environmental organizations, actually has a $250,000 budget to woo Democratic delegates with food, copying machines, caucus rooms, and an art exhibit.

''Vision'' is being run by veterans of the Chicago riots trying, according to spokesman Patrick O'Heffernan, to buck the image of ''kooks and leftover '60s hippies.'' He says they feel they can exercise more influence today through a sophisticated approach rather than marching.

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San Francisco Police Inspector John Hennessey says the permit issued to demonstrators is ''more a reservation for space than a permit,'' guaranteeing space in a two-acre demonstration area across the street from the Moscone Center.

Murphy sums up the cooperative approach to demonstrators: ''It's their right to demonstrate, and the party certainly doesn't wish to have a great scene.''

Rocky Pomerance, a security consultant to the Democratic Party, says, ''The demonstrators aren't really trying to influence the delegates. . . . They're looking at the 80 million people watching and at the opportunity to be seen and influence someone sitting at home in Iowa.''

Mr. Pomerance, a retired Miami Beach police chief and veteran of three previous convention security committees, admits that ''the people who really cause problems aren't going to meet with you.''

Although no one openly discusses security measures, Pomerance says plans for the unexpected include bomb-disposal equipment that has become standard equipment at political conventions.

Murphy and Pomerance both point out that there are radical political groups known to instigate violent activity at otherwise peaceful demonstrations.

The Communist Workers Party was said to be responsible for whipping up an incident within an otherwise peaceful protest at a San Francisco appearance of Henry A. Kissinger in April.

Historically, Pomerance says, the party of the incumbent sees more dissidence at its national convention. But this year, he points out, both Democrats and Republicans may have insulated themselves somewhat by choosing to meet in politically sympathetic cities.

In conservative Dallas, he says, it would take a sizable group of out-of-town organizers to make much noise over the Republican gathering. And the Democrats have picked a liberal cities.

The Bay Area has a reputation for radical activism and political eccentrics, but Pomerance says these are largely liberal groups whose best hope would seem to be with the Democratic Party. Demonstrations here are likely, in his opinion, to be supportive of the party or ''informational,'' rather than dissenting.

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