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DEMOS TAKE THEIR TURN ON STAGE

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The Democratic National Convention began Monday as President Clinton sought to build excitement with a slow train tour and Bob Dole invaded Chicago to snatch some last-minute attention in the midst of Democrats.

And Clinton received some good news in the polls. A USA Today/CNN poll showed he had erased some of the gains Dole made after his successful Republican National Convention. Clinton now leads by 12 points, after Dole had cut that lead to seven points.Clinton - aboard a train he calls the 21st Century Express - spoke in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio Sunday and Monday. He will continue a slow whistle-stop tour until he arrives in Chicago Wednesday.

He urged a rail-side crowd at his first stop in Huntington, W.V., to take "no U-turn. Stay on the right track."

He was expected Monday to unveil a proposal to ban the sale of handguns to those convicted of domestic violence. In Ashland, Ky., Sunday, he defended his support of gun control.

"We have taken those assault weapons off the street and we passed the Brady Bill, and not a single hunter in Kentucky or Arkansas has missed a deer season or any other kind of season," he said.

Meanwhile, Dole traveled to the Chicago suburb of Palos Park - in the shadow of the nearby Democratic convention - to accuse the president of being silent about drugs while use of them among youths increased for the past four years.

"We will treat drugs for what they are - the moral equivalent of terrorism," Dole said.

He also accused Clinton of taking credit for Republican issues. "Why did he wait until his fourth year to raise the minimum wage? Why did he wait until his fourth year to pass welfare reform that Republicans had been pushing for years?"

While Clinton slowly moves toward Chicago, Vice President Al Gore is already there - and is almost everywhere.

Gore spoke Sunday at a special AFL-CIO delegate rally. He cited chapter and verse about how Clin-ton had stopped the GOP "Ginsu" knife approach to Medicare and Medicaid. "They (the Republicans) were going to dice and slice," he told the cheering crowd. Nearly a fourth of the Democratic delegates belong to labor unions.

"And when Dole and (Newt) Gingrich said they wouldn't add one penny to the minimum wage," Clinton squeezed and squeezed and got the American people to force a 90-cent-an-hour increase through the Republican-controlled Congress, Gore said.

Gore is clearly being showcased here, just as Dole's surprise running mate choice - Jack Kemp - took the Republican Convention by storm two weeks ago. Gore will speak at least twice at the convention and is featured in a number of national newspapers and news magazines Monday.

Nationally syndicated commentator Molly Ivins, when asked about Gore Monday, said he's a likely shoo-in for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. "He just makes my heart beat stronger," she joked, alluding to Gore's physical looks.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is also in Chicago - her hometown - and has made numerous appearances.

The convention itself was scheduled to run six hours Monday, but major networks each planned only an hour of prime-time coverage. Cable networks such as C-SPAN and CNN planned gavel-to-gavel coverage, and PBS planned expanded evening coverage.

The convention Monday is scheduled to climax during network coverage with a speech by Christopher Reeve, the movie actor who played Superman who has been battling back from a fall from a horse that left him paralyzed

Also speaking Monday evening will be Sarah Brady, wife of Jim Brady, Ronald Reagan's press secretary who was shot in an assassination attempt; Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley; Alma Brown, wife of former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who was killed in an airplane crash in Bosnia; and actor Edward James Olmos.