TEXAS Treasurer Ann Richards, who will give the Democratic National Convention's keynote address tonight, is a populist who thinks in terms of pragmatic solutions. When a poor connection left a recent telephone call from an Oklahoma reporter sounding distant and hollow, Ms. Richards didn't miss a beat.
``You sound like you're in a well,'' she told the reporter from her office near the Texas State Capitol. ``When we were kids and a frog got in the well, we'd pour in some Clorox. It didn't taste too good, but it got the frog out and the water was still potable. So if you have any frogs in that well with you, now you know what to do.''
The 12,000 Democratic Party delegates and spectators who hear Ms. Richards speak at the Omni Center in Atlanta and the millions more who watch her on television will likely hear a few other folksy tales from this self-described ``strong and gutsy'' Texas woman as she sets the tone for her party's nominating convention.
There may be a down-home accent to some of what she says, and she promises to throw in some humor. But that will only be the spice that flavors a speech that she wants to express what she considers the ``compassion and promise'' of her party: its interest in strong families.
Before the days of coast-to-coast primaries, television, and Madison Avenue political campaigns, convention keynote addresses served to stir up the fervor of delegates who had many large decisions still before them - most prominently, the selection of the party's standard-bearers.
But more recently, with the party's ticket already decided before the convention - no presidential nomination has gone beyond a first ballot since the Republican vote in 1952 - the keynote address has served less to rally the delegates in the hall than to attract the masses, through their TV screens, to the party's vision of the country.
Presidential scholars say most recent keynote speeches have been forgotten within days of their delivery. There have been exceptions: The speech by former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas before Democrats in 1976 is often mentioned. The big exception, though, is New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's 38-minute address opening the Democratic convention in San Francisco four years ago.
Yet political observers note that, while Mr. Cuomo's address left many Democrats wondering if they were nominating the wrong man, it did nothing for Democrats' prospects in the fall presidential race.
``Cuomo made himself a household figure with his speech, but that's about the extent of the impact,'' says Columbia University historian Henry Graff. ``The sense of the keynote being of some significant interest starts with Cuomo,'' adds Fred Greenstein, a political scientist at Princeton University. ``But post-Cuomo, it's still not something that holds the weight of a vice-presidential selection.''
A few past speeches have had identifiable impact. Dr. Graff notes that a rousing keynoter in 1948 by Kentucky Sen. Alben Barkley earned him the vice-presidential slot with Harry Truman. ``It was magnificent,'' Graff recalls. ``I can still hear [even] the periods.''
Bryan and Barry
(Dr. Greenstein adds that, though it was not a keynote address, William Jennings Bryan's four-hour ``Cross of Gold'' speech to the Democrats in 1896 won the nomination for the 36-year-old ``prairie populist.'' And Graff recalls that Lyndon Johnson, after Ronald Reagan's speech nominating Barry Goldwater at the GOP convention in 1964, reportedly quipped, ``They nominated the wrong fella.'')
Richards, a likely candidate for Texas governor in 1990, says her appearance for a half-hour on national prime time television might help her in that race. But she says her overriding interest is to inspire Americans about the democracy they live in.
``I want to say it's great to be a participant in the Democratic process,'' Richards said during a recent interview. ``I hope my speech will go beyond the political fray, that it will make [the audience] feel good about themselves, their country, and help them see the tremendous potential we have if we just have the leadership to help us and not hinder us.''
Given that desire, Richards says hers will not be a ``speech of attack.'' Still, it wouldn't be a Richards speech if it didn't include a few digs at the Reagan administration and Mr. Reagan's would-be heir, George Bush.
In a speech before the Texas Democratic Party in June, Richards told the story of an admiral who refuses to change his ship's course to avoid what he mistakes in the fog to be another ship. It turns out to be a lighthouse.
Comparing that ship to the Reagan-Bush administration, which she said was ``the most anti-environmental, anti-labor, anti-civil rights, anti-middle class, anti-woman, anti-child government in our modern history,'' Richards added, ``The fog is lifting and Admiral Bush is about to have a close encounter with a Democratic lighthouse. It is finally bedtime for Bonzo.''
Richards, credited with having modernized the state's treasury and managing state funds with savvy investment decisions, calls herself a ``conservative when it comes to the taxpayers' dollars.'' And she bristles at suggestions that voters might perceive the Democratic ticket as liberal.
``It seems dishonest to say that the Democrats or Mike Dukakis are big spenders when we've had eight years in which we borrowed and spent, borrowed and spent, and borrowed and spent some more, like there's some big charge account in the sky. Ronald Reagan is not going to pay for that, but my granddaughter will.''
Importance of Texas
Richards, whose national speaking experience includes seconding Walter Mondale's nomination in 1984, says no one told her why she was picked. But she has a few guesses: She is a woman, when polls show women more favorable than men to a Democratic president; she has worked with and endorsed Mr. Dukakis; and she is a Southerner, more specifically a Texan.
``In my conversation with [Democratic Party chairman] Paul Kirk, we didn't get into how the decision was made, or why I was chosen,'' she says. ``But the message is very clear that Michael Dukakis thinks Texas is important.'' No Democrat has ever won the White House without taking Texas.
With the advent of the prime-time keynoter, parties have selected ``someone who speaks especially to a section of the voting population they are trying to attract,'' says Ruth Morgan, a specialist on the presidency at Southern Methodist University. ``The Democrats have [the benefit of] the gender gap, and Dukakis has heightened that with the selection of Ann Richards.''
Richards also says she was given no guidelines for the speech, although Governor Cuomo did call and advise her to ``just be yourself.'' The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has assembled a stable of speech writers and coaches to assist all speakers.
In seeking ideas, Richards has consulted with ``friends and people I respect,'' including Barbara Jordan; Liz Carpenter, former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson; and representatives of both the Dukakis and Jesse Jackson campaigns.
Reflecting back on the noisy crowd that buzzed away during her speech for Mr. Mondale, she hopes that this year is different.
``I hope this time I might have a shot at a little more attention,'' she says. ``For the keynote, I believe they dim the lights.''
Convention Highlights Monday Opening ceremonies Keynote speech: Ann Richards, Texas state treasurer Speakers include: Former President Jimmy Carter
Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young Tuesday Platform Committee report and platform debate Convention chairman's speech: Rep. Jim Wright (Texas) Speakers include: The Rev. Jesse Jackson
Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) Wednesday Presidential nomination and balloting Speakers include: Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles
Former Kentucky Gov. Martha Lane Collins
Former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (N.Y.)
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) Thursday Vice-presidential nomination and balloting Candidates' acceptance speeches Speakers include: Birmingham, Ala., Mayor Richard Arrington
Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.)