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DEMOCRATIC DELEGATES LOOK FORWARD TO BOSTON
CONVENTION SEEN
AS TIME FOR CHANGE

Orchard Park attorney Diane J. McMahon concedes there is no longer much reason for big, raucous political conventions like the one beginning here Monday.

She knows that Sens. John F. Kerry and John Edwards are guaranteed the presidential and vice presidential nominations Thursday at the culmination of the Democratic National Convention.

And she agrees the whole procedure more closely resembles the ultimate infomercial.

But the war in Iraq and other events have spurred the veteran attorney to take her first plunge into politics and participate in a process she still deems important. McMahon arrives at the convention this weekend as a Kerry delegate, hoping to contribute to her ultimate goal of sending the Massachusetts senator to the White House.

"I don't really speak out about things," she said. "So this is my chance to spend my time and effort to promote a change in direction for the country."

McMahon is just one of 4,353 delegates, 611 alternates, 15,000 media and thousands of others converging upon the Fleet Center this week to kick off the latest version of a uniquely American political ritual. They will listen to endless rounds of speeches, wear funny hats and wade through a sea of balloons before the event ends on Thursday. But while suspense-filled ballots and colorful floor demonstrations are relegated to the past, experts say conventions have carved out new roles in campaigns dominated by the media allowing participants like McMahon to still contribute to the cause.

"They really don't serve a function any more," said Phil Klinkner, a professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton. "But it is a chance for parties to put their candidate forward." He and other observers agree that modern presidential campaigns boil down to two media events: the conventions and the debates. While debates can take on a life of their own, conventions like what the Democrats are staging in Boston provide scripted themes and acceptance speeches drawing a huge audience.

"I think the public has lost confidence in Bush, but they really don't know a lot about Kerry yet," said Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan. "This is the week they get to know him."

That doesn't really differ from the goal of the first national convention staged by the Anti-Masonic Party in Baltimore in 1831. But over the years, conventions have evolved into forums for policy discussions, a way to publicize those issues and -- perhaps most important -- a fund-raising venue.

"Do we really need all this rigamarole? Probably not," Klinkner said. "None of this affects ordinary voters. But it does provide a chance to fleece the really big donors."

As a result, much of the convention activity will take place away from the Fleet Center. Local Democratic congressional candidates like Brian M. Higgins and Samara Barend will be working national fund-raising sources at various gatherings. Erie County party leaders are expected to shore up their campaign responsibilities, and Kerry's local campaign leaders expect to return with a fall game plan to use in New York and the crucial swing states.

"We'll be attending training courses put on by the Democratic National Committee and the Kerry people," said Mark C. Poloncarz, the Kerry campaign's Western New York coordinator. "Then it will be full time work teaching people at home what they need to know to elect Kerry and Edwards. If this is just a coronation and we lose in November, it all means nothing in the long run."

McMahon recognizes that casting her vote as a Kerry delegate represents an anachronism. But she still believes the convention serves new purposes as a place to exchange ideas and for Democrats to work for a common goal.

"It has its purpose within the party ranks more than as a function of electing a president," she said. "I ask myself why I am really going. But then I realize, it's still the way it's done."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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