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DEMOCRATS OF ALL STRIPES UNITE

The Democratic convention showcased a party united around one candidate -- a feat Democrats haven't accomplished in years.

BOSTON -- Democrats returned home from their national convention Friday after four days of so much love and unity that most don't quite know what to make of it.

No riots in the streets. No division in the ranks. Not even a single minority report to the platform committee.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. "It is a unified Democratic Party on behalf of this ticket that is really committed to winning.

"I love that," she added. "It's a pleasant focus because that's not always been a hallmark of the Democrats."

While nobody in Boston has come close to guaranteeing victory for their nominee -- Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts -- most feel they hold a major advantage as they begin campaigning. From regular delegates on the floor to top office holders, Democrats leaving here Friday think they have forged a winning combination of a top candidate supported by an energized base.

"This is the best we can be right now," said New York State Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer. "You can't ask for better circumstances to position us for stating our case come November."

The entire affair is so unprecedented in its unanimity that veteran politicos like former Erie County Democratic Chairman Joseph F. Crangle, observing at home, contrast it with rancorous conventions like Chicago in 1968 and Miami in 1972. It's easy to draw a correlation, he said, between those divisions and disappointing Democratic results.

"This convention is more like a pep rally before a championship game," he said. "That's very unique for the Democratic Party. In fact, it's historic."

The convention was carefully scripted to avoid hot-button issues that divide the electorate.

Abortion rights, gay rights, affirmative action, gun control and other topics got barely a mention during the four-day event. Instead, the focus was on introducing Kerry by spotlighting his war record and showing what kind of commander in chief he might be.

Nevertheless, Democrats and Republicans agreed that the unprecedented sense of unity centers around one theme -- President Bush himself. Though the Kerry campaign has tried to minimize "Bush bashing" at the Boston convention, it has on occasion been shouted from the podium by such party icons as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

"In the depths of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt inspired the nation when he said 'we have nothing to fear but fear itself,' " Kennedy told the convention Tuesday. "Today, the only thing we have to fear is four more years of George Bush."

That kind of thinking may be resonating with Democrats in a way that not only unites but energizes, according to Crangle.

"There's a kind of unanimity in dislike of Bush (among Democrats)," he said. "In '76, people didn't vote for Jimmy Carter because they disliked Gerald Ford, or they didn't vote for Bill Clinton in '92 because they disliked George Bush I. Here, there is a strong dislike for the policies or even the personality of President Bush."

Republicans, of course, view unity as Bush bashing. Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis contends the convention emphasized that aspect so much that it neglected to tell Democrats why they should support their own nominee.

"It's been a convention where they've all been patting themselves on the back on how much they hate George Bush," he said. "Nobody has said why we should vote for Kerry."

And in a Boston briefing early in convention week, Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie acknowledged that Kerry may surge as much as eight to 10 points in the polls as a result of exposure to a feel-good convention.

But Gillespie does not believe the convention delegates reflect America, let alone Democrats, and says he's not worried about "bounce" or what the Democratic convention produces.

"We hope to set the record straight and get into the mix," he said.

And Davis said the electorate at least knows and understands Bush.

"The voters are not going to elect a president on Nov. 2 of whom they know nothing about," he said.

Still, Democrats like what they see, where they are in the polls and the impression their convention has left. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York points out that unity is so prevalent that Kerry is being embraced by a largely anti-war convention despite his conceptual support for the effort in Iraq. He also said the Democratic unity factor bodes well for negating any effect registered by independent candidate Ralph Nader, who many feel cost Democrats the election in 2000.

In the end, Schumer said the unanimity among Democrats will make television ads far less important in this election than motivating a united base to go the polls.

"It's going to depend not so much on the swing vote as on turnout," he said. "And I think the Democratic turnout is going to be high."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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