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Democratic conventioners fret over education and other domestic issues but ignore once-vital foreign policy

LIKE weary world-travelers away for half a century, Americans returned home this year to a shocking discovery. Their housing is run-down, their streets are pot-holed, their air is dirty, their schools are decaying, their factories are closing, their cities are crime-ridden, their homeless are uncared for.

Making it even worse, their wallets are empty.

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Several thousand Democrats assembled here July 13-16 to talk about all this, and the contrast with past party conventions was striking. In four days of speeches, press conferences, protests, rallies, and politicking, there was very little mention of foreign policy.

Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee, spent 53 minutes and thousands of words in his acceptance speech discussing America's priorities for the next four years. Yet he devoted a mere 200 words to defense and foreign policy.

Mickey Kantor, campaign chairman for Governor Clinton, explains that with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, economics becomes the leading issue, both at home and abroad. Mr. Kantor makes it clear that without a powerful, world-class economy, the United States will not be able to exert its influence overseas in the post-cold-war era.

Clinton made a similar point in his acceptance speech. Quoting from the Democratic Party's new platform, he said: "The most important family policy, urban policy, labor policy, minority policy, and foreign policy America can have is an expanding, entrepreneurial economy of high-wage, high-skill jobs."

Clinton's views mirror those of the vast majority of US voters. Americans seem uninterested in foreign problems. Only 4 percent of them say foreign policy and defense should be the nation's most important priorities.

Reflecting this attitude, the Arkansas governor said: "The cold war is over ... and our values ... have triumphed all around the world. And yet ... we are losing the battles for economic opportunity and social justice here at home."

Then he added, for emphasis: "Now that we have changed the world, it's time to change America."

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For decades, Democratic presidential candidates suffered politically on defense and foreign policy issues. They were seen as weak. But Democrats now may have a political edge as high-tech factories replace high-tech weapons as symbols of national strength.

This turnaround in American thinking was a long time in coming. But a critical point was apparently reached earlier this year when President Bush fell ill in Tokyo, and had to be rushed away from a dinner with Japanese leaders.

Top executives of the big US auto companies, begging bowls in hand, went along with Mr. Bush on the Tokyo trip to plead for more business from Japan's auto giants. Many Americans found the whole spectacle degrading and infuriating. Never was this nation's slide from economic preeminence so apparent.

Tempers are still on edge. The loudest boos at the Democratic convention here came when Clinton said: "Our country has fallen so far, so fast, that just a few months ago, the Japanese prime minister actually said he felt sympathy for the United States."

Then he promised: "When I am your president, the rest of the world will not look down on us with pity, but ... with respect again."

Though internationalists may lament it, Americans clearly are in a mood to spruce up their own house. Foreign problems will have to wait.

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