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Democrats Assemble

THE current issue of American Heritage magazine has an enthralling account of the backroom dickering and the floor fight at the Democratic national convention in 1944 that put Harry Truman on the ticket as Franklin Roosevelt's running mate. (Nine months later Truman was president.) The story is a reminder of what American political conventions used to be about.

There will be no comparable high drama at the Democratic convention in New York this week. Oh, there may be a few small tempests over platform issues; but the major decisions that once were hammered out in the party conventions - above all the names on the ticket - have already been made.

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But that doesn't mean that, behind all the made-for-TV glitz, nothing of importance will be going on in New York, or at the Republican convention in Houston next month. Conventions still are important rallying events for the party faithful. The parties get to showcase many of their stars for the viewing public. And the speakers, notably the nominees, will be trying out some of the themes and even actual phrases that could become important in the general election.

And if the conventions have become exercises in packaging and showmanship, still, how each party stages its summer extravaganza can provide insights into the party's organization, preparation, and values.

In contrast to some recent election years, the Democrats go into their convention fairly united. Bill Clinton wrapped up the nomination with unexpected speed, and did so without making wounds that will be hard to heal. Most of Clinton's former rivals, like Paul Tsongas, have endorsed him or have acquiesced gracefully in the choice. And there appears to be genuine enthusiasm among Democrats over Clinton's selection of Sen. Al Gore as his vice presidential candidate.

Clinton has three priority tasks during and immediately after the convention to position himself strongly for the fall campaign:

* He must persuade the convention delegates and, beyond them, the American people that his candidacy has not been hobbled by "character" issues. Clinton won't lay the character question permanently to rest, but he can go a long way in shifting the public's attention from his person to his programs.

* He must do more to patch up relations with black voters who may still be offended by Clinton's tiff last month with Jesse Jackson.

* He has the Democratic candidate's perennial challenge of energizing the party's constituent groups without seeming to pander to special interests.

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Will Clinton succeed? This week will start to tell the story.

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