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The Democratic Party is finally catching on.

Come presidential elections, Democrats are their own worst enemy. Consider the helmeted Mike Dukakis in a tank or the monochromatic Al Gore -- the original "I, Robot." Not to mention Monica. When it comes to giving people reasons to vote Republican, Democrats have no equal.

But they seem to be wising up.

Fearful of alienating Middle America, John Kerry's advisers sent word to every speaker at this week's convention: Be positive, not vicious.

The tipping point in November is the 10 percent of Americans who don't yet know how they'll vote. They won't be won over by conspiracy theories or attack-dog rants that alienate more people than they attract.

It looks as if the Democratic Party understands that. Maybe it was the backlash from the recent Whoopi Goldberg-led Bush-bashing fund-raiser in New York. Maybe it's simply an explosion of common sense.

At this convention, Democrats need to convince Middle America, wherever it is, that they are not hunter-hating, tractor-pull-loathing, Reba-belittling, brie-eating, penthouse-dwelling elitists.

They need to show that they are not disconnected-from-mainstream dandies who can debate the merits of Veuve Clicquot vs. Dom Perignon but can't change a car tire; who summer at the shore but don't drink Pabst, shop at Kmart or inhale fried dough at lawn fetes.

Whoopi won't get within a cab ride of the podium this week, but Kerry isn't taking any chances. Calling George W. Bush a thug would only ensure that we'd be calling him Mr. President for another four years.

I'm no Bush fan. I think he's over his head, simple-minded and maybe -- given his reported aversion to reading or contemplation -- even simple. We're paying the price for it in Iraq and in the enemies it has made us.

But I think his failings are honest ones. I don't think Bush went to war for the greater good of Halliburton. I don't believe he would sacrifice Americans on the altar of a family friendship with Saudi oil magnates. And I don't think most Americans believe that, either.

The moralist and the Democrat in me cringed when a privileged subculture of rock stars and actors called the president a "thug" and a "killer" at that Manhattan fund-raiser. Goldberg made a profane punch line of Bush's name. It wasn't just wrong; it was politically wrongheaded.

Any moral ground the Democrats claimed after Dick Cheney suggested the anatomically impossible to Sen. Patrick Leahy was buried that night in the landslide of big-donor venom. The below-the-belt attacks fed the notion that Democrats seem to be disconnected from the mind-set of most Americans.

The irony, outlined in Thomas Frank's book "What's the Matter With Kansas?," is that working stiffs who should vote Democratic on merit instead vote Republican on principle. What Democrats believe arguably serves most Americans better than the Republican doctrine of tax cuts for the rich and deregulation. Yet the heartland is filled with red Republican states because of a Democratic cultural disconnect.

Kerry blew a chance to bridge that gap after the carnival of dirty dancing and wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl halftime show. The then-front-runner should have been all over it, staking the Democratic claim to the moral high ground and plugging into the family outrage. Instead, he said hardly a word.

From the looks of the convention, he learned a lesson: Wave the flag, mainstream the message and cut the venom.

It seems as if there's somebody running the campaign who can not only fix a flat tire, but change the oil.


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