What a Windy City Chicago Has Been a Hot Spot for Political Conventions through the Years, Hosting More Than Any Other City. as the Democrats Bring Their Party to Town Today, Let's Take a Look Back at Conventions Past

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Byline: Dan Rozek Daily Herald Staff Writer

The defining moment in Abraham Lincoln's run for president may have arrived when the Republican Party decided to hold its 1860 national convention in Chicago.

Once on their home field, Lincoln's managers energetically hustled delegates, cut numerous political deals and ultimately used counterfeit convention tickets to pack the 10,000-seat Wigwam with screaming Lincoln supporters.

Republican delegates stampeded to the dark-horse downstater, who rode the political tidal wave created in his home state into the White House.

None of it likely would have happened, historians say, if Lincoln's backers hadn't convinced party leaders to convene in Chicago.

"Lincoln really wasn't at the head of the pack, or even one of the top three or four candidates," said Kathleen Zygmun, an assistant curator at the Chicago Historical Society and an expert on the city's political conventions. "It is fairly clear this happened because the convention was here."

After 1968, a hiatus

The stunning outcome of the 1860 convention marked the start of what rapidly became an American political tradition - gathering in Chicago to pick a president.

Since Lincoln's day, Chicago's Second City label just doesn't hold up when it comes to staging political conventions.

It's hosted 24 major political conventions - more than twice as many as the next closest city, even though Chicago took a 28-year hiatus following the turbulent 1968 Democratic convention.

But Chicago again steps onto the center stage of American politics with today's opening of the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

Times have changed for political conventions, thanks to primaries that make the results a foregone conclusion before the first votes are cast.

But that doesn't mean the latest gathering won't add another colorful chapter to the city's controversial legacy, which already boasts enough political highlights to fill a smoke-filled room - a phrase popularly coined in Chicago after party bosses selected Warren G. Harding as a compromise candidate during the 1920 Republican National Convention.

The legacy includes:

- Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt battling unsuccessfully for one party's nomination in 1912, then capturing another party's support during a second convention in Chicago later the same year.

- Franklin D. Roosevelt making history in 1932 by becoming the first candidate to give a personal acceptance speech at a convention, then following that up in 1940 by accepting the nomination in Chicago for a record third term.

- In 1952, television first covering Democratic and Republican conventions in Chicago, although news accounts at the time reported some viewers amazingly found the proceedings "monotonous."

- The whole world watching in 1968 as police and protesters waged the "Battle of Chicago" on city streets while Democratic delegates warred among themselves at the International Amphitheatre.

What is it about Chicago that attracted so many conventions?

The nation's heartland

The city's location in the middle of the country helped, as did its role as a transportation center, experts say.

"It was just an easy city for delegates to get to," said Loyola University political scientist John Pelissero. "The ease of transportation by rail or boat made it appealing."

City officials, quick to smell a potential profit, realized it was good business to bring the delegates to town and made sure Chicago convention halls were always among the biggest and the best, said DePaul University instructor and author R. Craig Sautter.

"Once they got the convention business going, they made sure there were halls that could hold 15,000 or 20,000 people," said Sautter, who with Chicago Alderman Edward Burke authored "Inside the Wigwam: Chicago Presidential Conventions 1860-1996. …