They used to say in politics that the only poll which mattered was the one taken on election day. That was before the Nielsen ratings. Tonight at 7 p.m. CT, the prime-time portion of the Democratic convention kicks off in Chicago, an opportunity for the party to take its message directly to the people--and get embarrassed by how few viewers pay attention. The Republican convention two weeks ago drew the lowest combined prime-time ratings for the Big Three broadcast networks ever.

The Democrats have a respectable amount of glitz lined up, however. They hired Gary Smith, veteran producer of TV specials as well as the three previous conventions, to run the show. Edward James Olmos is scheduled to help open the program tonight and Christopher Reeve is on board to help close it. In between, the cast of the Broadway hit Rent will sing. President Clinton is making his way to Chicago via train and will send in live remotes each day to the hall before he helicopters in for his acceptance speech on Wednesday night.

The networks will give full coverage to the meeting, despite their grumbling that the conventions are non-news events. Even Ted Koppel sent a crew there, just in case. He created a stir when he pulled out of the Republican convention, calling it an infomercial, and said he wouldn't go to Chicago, either. He hasn't been spotted there himself, however--at least, so far.

True to their reputation as being the party party, the Democrats threw some impressive warmup bashes over the weekend. Appearing as entertainment: Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt, Crosby Stills & Nash and Chuck D. Still to come: a "rock 'n' roll fireworks" show sponsored by a local radio station and a Miller Lite beach volleyball tournament.

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