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What to look for during Democrats' national conclave

Morris K. Udall, the veteran Democratic congressman from Arizona, was having breakfast with some reporters the other day when he observed: ''This convention cannot be too boring to suit me. I hope there's no excitement, and it's the dullest gathering in the history of man.''

Mr. Udall's scenario would surely disappoint the estimated 14,000 reporters, 90 million television viewers, and many of the 3,944 Democratic delegates who will be closely following events next week in San Francisco.

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Many of them are looking for some old-fashioned Democratic-style warfare. There are lots of possibilities. Jesse Jackson may tangle with conservative Southerners over election laws. Feminists could wage war against Walter Mondale over the issue of a woman on the ticket. Jewish delegates may be enraged by Mr. Jackson's proposals on the Mideast. Hispanic delegates may kick up a fuss over proposed immigration laws aimed at illegal aliens.

Democratic leaders like Representative Udall, however, would happily take a colorless, lifeless convention - rather than the kind of raucous outbursts and bitter feelings that helped send the party to crashing defeats in 1968, 1972, and 1980. If delegates are bored with an orderly convention, that's just too bad. Perhaps, suggests one insider, they should just go across the bay to Oakland where they could while away their time watching the A's battle the Boston Red Sox. If TV watchers find it all tedious, they might prefer to step out to a movie.

Joestet Duffey, who will be a Mondale floor leader in San Francisco, calls conventions four-day ''television commercials'' that, in effect, kick off the final political campaign. Dr. Duffey is chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The conventions make a powerful imprint on the public consciousness. ''Images get flashed,'' Dr. Duffey observes. If those images are positive, if the presidential nominee looks in control, the party's prospects can soar. Candidates have been known to gain 10, even 20 points, in the ratings after a good convention.

But if the images are bad, as in 1968, when there was rioting in Chicago, the party's standard bearer may never recover. There is little doubt that Richard M. Nixon's defeat of Hubert H. Humphrey that year was due in large part to the angry Democratic convention.

For days now, campaign manager Robert Beckel and many other members of the Mondale team have struggled to make Udall's wish come true. They have huddled with Jackson aides. They have been in touch with Gary Hart strategists. They have sought to calm the concerns of feminists, Jews, and Southerners. The watchword has been unity.

The outlook is reasonably good. A Democratic insider who keeps in touch with the different factions says there ''seems to be a spirit of harmony and an effort to work out differences.''

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A Hart delegate, Thomas Cronin of Colorado, agrees. Dr. Cronin, an adjunct professor of political science at Colorado College, was on the platform committee that sought to resolve differences between the candidates.

''We really worked to come to compromise decisions rather than have confrontational fights - very unlike 1980 when I was also on the platform committee where a lot of fights took place,'' he observes.

''There was a lot of bitterness'' four years ago, Cronin recalls. The split in 1980 between President Carter and his main challenger, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, got worse as the convention neared. Kennedy delegates saw the issue as one of leadership. They said it was competence vs. incompetence. And they saw it as progressives vs. moderates.

Kennedy delegates ''felt that the incumbent was incompetent, as well as not progressive enough, so you had two or three things moving together,'' says Cronin, who sided with Kennedy. Feelings were ''emotional'' and ''severe,'' he remembers.

There's nothing like those bitter feelings this time. It's true that during this year's primaries, Mr. Hart and Mr. Mondale each felt the other had hit below the belt. Hart often says that if the campaign had been waged fairly and on the issues, he would have won the nomination in April. But the animosity between the two men doesn't seem long lasting. Nor are their differences based on serious disagreements on the issues. Mondale and Hart, both liberals, are much closer philosophically than Kennedy and Carter were four years ago.

Nor is Jackson spoiling for a fight in San Francisco. Democratic insiders say that in recent private meetings, the fiery black preacher has been conciliatory and shows every sign that he will work for the ticket in the fall.

Even so, Mondale's team is cautious. Negative images - from street demonstrations to convention floor fights - remain a possibility. Mondale aides won't be able to relax until the last TV camera has been switched off, and the last newspaper reporter has boarded a plane to head back home.

What are the danger spots?

Norman Ornstein, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a director of the congressional fellowship program, says Mondale's image problem begins with San Francisco itself.

From a political viewpoint, Dr. Ornstein says, ''I think San Francisco was the worst city (the Democrats) could have picked . . . and they are going to pay a price for that.''


''Every kooky group in the country is going to gravitate to San Francisco to get its day in the sun. And a Democratic Party which has to worry about its overall image now as a party that doesn't stand for traditional values, and it's a little kooky, isn't going to be helped by being in the city.''

If TV finds the convention boring, Ornstein says, the networks ''are just going to have an overwhelming temptation to go outside.''

If they do, they may focus on a city famous for its beauty, its marvelous climate, its thriving economy, its cable cars, and its fashionable downtown area. But the temptations that Ornstein was referring to are in the other San Francisco, a city known for its off-beat culture, the incidence of drug abuse, and its influential population of homosexuals.

Local politicians say that as may as 30 percent of the voters in San Francisco are gay.

On Sunday, as delegates arrive at hotels all over the city, 100,000 people are expected to assemble at Market and Castro Streets for a rally and parade by the Gay/Lesbian Coalition. Across the street from the Democratic headquarters hotel will be a billboard with the message: ''Best Wishes For a Successful Convention.'' It's signed, ''The Men and Women of San Francisco's Gay Community.''

Paul Boneberg, president of the Stonewall Gay Democratic Club, calls the San Francisco convention a ''historic opportunity.'' Mr. Boneberg told the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News that this is ''an opportunity the gay and lesbian community has to seize.'' There's little doubt that Mr. Boneberg and his allies hold no ill will toward Mondale & Co. They clearly favor him over President Reagan, despite Mr. Reagan's California roots. But their prominence during convention week could, as one Democratic insider puts it, be ''off-putting to some voters.'' That's especially true because Mondale will be running against a President who is basing much of his campaign on a return to basic family values.

Here's the outlook for the rest of the week:

MONDAY. When the convention officially begins in the Moscone Center on Monday afternoon, party leaders hope to turn the focus of TV firmly back on official business.

At one time, it looked as if Monday could be a day filled with fireworks. That's the day the credentials report on delegates is made, and Hart was charging for weeks that Mondale had improperly won many of his delegates in such states as New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Jackson claimed that he had been cheated by winning more than 21 percent of the vote, but getting less than 10 percent of the delegates.

Intense work behind the scenes has smoothed out these problems, so that Monday's opening should move quickly and smoothly up to the climactic moment when the keynote speaker, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, steps to the podium.

The governor, an impressive orator who, like Reagan, talks about family values, will give what amounts to the kickoff speech for the fall campaign. He will set the tone for the Democratic attack on the President. He will throw down the gauntlet to the Republicans. He will try to pump enthusiasm into the delegates and excite the party faithful across the country.

If all goes well, his speech will be timed for a maximum TV audience - at 7 p.m. Pacific daylight time, 10 p.m. Eastern daylight time.

Shortly afterwards, the first day's session will adjourn. Many delegates will head to the ''Oh, What a Night!'' party hosted from 9 p.m. to midnight by California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown at Pier 45.

TUESDAY. At one time, the Tuesday session looked like a real problem. This is the day for considering the party platform. Through days of negotiations and compromise, the major candidates managed to work out most of their differences. But not all of them.

Hart still has a complaint or two. Jackson has several. Even so, Hart's allies were quite happy with the outcome. Says Hart delegate Cronin, who helped draft some of the compromise language: ''Mondale's people, quite shrewdly, were ecumenical, welcoming new ideas. Most of the platform wound up being a Hart platform because Mondale didn't really have many new ideas.''

The platform, however, does follow a pattern favored by Mondale. He wanted to keep it thematic, rather than specific. Broad themes can unite the party, he felt. Specific proposals and endorsement of specific bills can split the party.

Stephen J. Wayne, a professor of political science and public affairs at George Washington University and author of ''The Road to the White House,'' praises the Mondale strategy.

''I think the emphasis on a thematic platform was certainly in Mondale's interest - rather than a grab bag, a laundry list, for the various elements of the (Democratic) coalition,'' he says. If any group - women, blacks, Hispanics, or others - complain about the platform, Dr. Wayne says, then Mondale should show that he is ''willing to listen.'' Beyond that, however, Mondale should be firm and tell his opponents that if they ''sit on their hands, they know who is going to be in the White House for the next four years.''

Trouble over the platform could come in five areas. Four are items of strong interest to Jackson, one is a Hart proposal. The Jackson planks involve voting rights, affirmative action, first use of nuclear weapons, and defense spending. Hart's plank deals with defense strategy. Here's a quick rundown:

Voting rights. Jackson calls for the ''complete elimination of the runoff primary'' as well as other ''impediments to the right to vote'' such as ''at-large requirements, gerrymandering, annexation, dual registration, dual voting, and other schemes. . . .'' This is strongly opposed by Southern Democratic leaders.

Affirmative action. Jackson, while opposing quotas, seeks to make the affirmative-action language somewhat more sweeping than Mondale wishes.

Nuclear weapons. Jackson seeks ''adoption of a policy of 'no first use' of nuclear weapons.'' Democratic and Republican presidents have long opposed such a pledge.

Defense spending. Jackson allies seek to insert language stating that the US ''cannot undertake vitally needed domestic (programs) unless military spending is reduced. . . . We spend far more than what is required for a strong defense.'' Both Mondale and Hart favor continued growth of defense budgets.

Defense strategy. Hart calls for a pledge that the US won't engage in unilateral military action until all other options have been exhausted. He also calls for taking all reasonable action to minimize US vulnerability to a cutoff of Mideast oil. Mondale has favored a more flexible military strategy than this, especially involving Mideast oil supplies. Hart has argued that Mideast oil fields should not be defended by US ground forces.

The platform could be a volatile area. Lorn Foster of Pomona College in southern California, who is doing an in-depth study of the Jackson campaign for the Joint Center for Political Studies, suggests that Jackson will use the platform debate as ''a wedge at the convention.'' Jackson will seize that moment to challenge the convention ''on fairness and all that that entails,'' says Mr. Foster, who is a professor of government.

Meanwhile, outside and perhaps inside the Moscone Center, Hispanics will be letting the country and the delegates know of their opposition to the Simpson-Mazzoli bill now wending its way through Congress. The bill would penalize employers who hire illegal aliens, while at the same time granting amnesty to millions of illegals, mainly Mexicans, already in the US. Support from many Democratic members of Congress helped the bill (in different versions) pass both houses. A compromise acceptable to the House and Senate could become law this year. Demonstrations at the convention could embarrass Mondale, who needs strong support from Hispanics in Texas, New York, and several other key states.

WEDNESDAY. The roll call of the states. ''Mister chairman, Al-a-bam-a, the Heart of Dixie, casts its votes for . . .'' This should be a great day for Mondale.

THURSDAY. Voting for vice-president. The big challenge here could come from women delegates, nearly half the total attending the convention. The National Organization for Women has said that if Mondale's choice for vice-president is not acceptable to them, they will wage a floor fight to put a woman on the ticket.

This threat, and what many Democratic insiders say is unexpected momentum for a woman vice-presidential candidate, puts pressure on Mondale to pick a running mate acceptable to feminists, rather than one whom his advisers think could help him most on election day.

Some leading Democrats, such as Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, suggest that a woman would help Mondale more than anyone else. Others argue that Mondale needs help with male voters, with Southern voters, and with ethnic voters, and his choice should be a man who strengthens the ticket in those areas.

The growing excitement over a female vice-presidential candidate could make Day Four the most interesting of all. Perhaps all those reporters and TV-watchers won't be bored after all.

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