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Bill Clinton's father died three months before he was born. His late stepfather was an alcoholic who abused his mother. But he overcame his hardship to become the Democratic nominee for president.

In an acceptance speech Thursday night that at times had the feel of a revival meeting, Clinton proposed a "New Covenant," a promise that all Americans can overcome their hardships through "more empowerment and less entitlement."The nearly hourlong speech helped unite Democrats for the campaign ahead and introduced the 45-year-old Arkansas governor to the American people as a man who has worked hard for everything that he has and as a man who thanks his family for everything that he is.

Clinton closed the four-day Democratic National Convention by telling Americans they can do better than George Bush and by reaching out to supporters of Ross Perot, the undeclared independent candidate who dropped out of the presidential race only hours earlier.

"We offer our people a new choice based on old values. We offer opportunity. We demand responsibility," Clinton said. "The choice we offer is not conservative or liberal; in many ways it is not Democratic or Republican. It is different. It is new. And it will work."

Clinton accused the Republican administrations of Reagan and Bush of losing touch with the nation's values, of rewarding those who "cut corners and cut deals" while "those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft."

Politicians have placed too much of the blame for the nation's problems on "the rest of us. Them. Them the minorities. Them the liberals. Them the poor. We have them-ed ourselves to death," he said.

"This is America. There is no them. There is only us," he said, leading the tens of thousands of delegates and guests packed into Madison Square Garden through the Pledge of Allegiance.

He used scripture to deride Bush for describing the American tradition of looking to the future as "the vision thing." Clinton quoted a warning from the Bible: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

He turned to the Bible to offer hope as well, saying Americans can restore faith in themselves and each other: "Our eyes have not yet seen, nor our ears heard, nor our minds imagined what we can build."

The pledge and the biblical references underscored Clinton's attempt to shift the Democratic party closer to the political center. He endorsed a woman's right to choose abortion as well as an increased effort to fight AIDS and universal health care, but he also made clear that he is not pro-abortion but pro-choice.

The Democratic Party needs to make some changes, Clinton said, changes convention delegates committed themselves to earlier in the week by adopting a platform billed as moderate by the candidate.

"It is time for us to realize that there is not a government program for every problem. And if we really want to use government to help people, we've got to make it work again," Clinton said.

To do that, he offered voters a program he dubbed the "New Covenant, a solemn agreement between the people and their government - based not simply on what each of us can take but on what all of us must give to our nation."

The program, Clinton said, would provide college loans and health care for everybody; a tax increase for Americans making more than $200,000 a year; a reduction in defense spending but a strong national defense, ready and willing to use force when necessary; and an end to welfare "as we know it."

Those receiving college loans would have to pay back the money or return it in service to their communities; those receiving health care would have to get preventative care for themselves and their children.

Of the tax increase for what he termed the wealthiest Americans, Clinton said simply, "Responsibility starts at the top."

To those on the other end of the economic scale, he said, "you will have and you deserve the opportunity through training and education, health care and child care to liberate yourself. But then you have a responsibility to go to work. Welfare must be a second chance, not a way of life."

Clinton talked of his own family's poverty in the tiny town of Hope, Ark., of his mother's struggle to provide for them after his father was killed in a car wreck on a rainy road.

He said he learned more about equality and justice behind the counter of his grandfather's country store than he learned at Georgetown or Yale Law School or Oxford, England, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

His wife, Hillary, taught him the importance of seeing that all children are educated. Their daughter, Chelsea, gave him an opportunity his own father never had: the chance to hold his child in his arms.

His story was also told before his speech in a film, "A Man From Hope," where Clinton, his mother, his half-brother, his wife and his daughter spoke plainly about the family's strengths and weaknesses.

Virginia Kelley described in the film how her son stood up to his stepfather. "Bill told him then, `Don't you ever, ever lay your hand on my mother again.' "

Clinton said in the film that he realized later that his stepfather was not bad and probably loved his family. "The problem was that he didn't think enough of himself."

Roger, his younger half-brother, recalled in the film how Clinton looked out for him, too. "My brother took over the leadership role in our family when he was just a kid."

The film also dealt with a weakness of the candidate himself, the allegations of marital infidelity that nearly destroyed his campaign before the New Hampshire primary.

Clinton said he and his wife watched a news program about "their troubled marriage" with their daughter. "It was pretty painful," he said. "After it was over, I asked, `What do you think?' And she said, `I think I'm glad you're my parents.' "

Twelve-year-old Chelsea Clinton, whose parents have kept her out of the media spotlight during the campaign, said in the film that they have taught her to think for herself and to follow the Golden Rule.

Hillary Clinton, who has conveyed a much softer image during the convention, described her courtship with Bill in the film, seemingly charming the the arena audience with a girlish account of their first meeting.

Perhaps the most powerful segment of the film showed a 16-year-old Clinton shaking the hand of President John F. Kennedy, the man he has said inspired him, like so many others of his generation, to seek a role in government.

The young Clinton, who had traveled to Washington, D.C., from Arkansas to attend a national Boys State conference, appeared awestruck.

The mature Clinton appeared confident on the podium Thursday, as the thousands of delegates and guests jammed into Madison Square Garden cheered his candidacy and celebrated their party by waving Clinton pennants and joining hands and swaying to a song written for the campaign, "Circle of Friends."