-- So is it still Bill Clinton's party? Or is it Barack Obama's party?

Yes, by the end of this week, it will formally be John Kerry's party. But what, exactly, will it mean to be a Kerry Democrat?

Clinton's hold on the Democratic imagination was made plain when the first night of the convention popularly became known as "The Clinton Night," even though Jimmy Carter and Al Gore shared the playbill.

Whatever else is said about Clinton, it's always noted that he was a "New Democrat" who "transformed the party" and "moved it to the center." As in all cliches, there's some truth in this one. Clinton did give his party a new look, some new ideas on crime and welfare, and a chance to carry states in the Deep South.

Yet Clinton was more than a New Democrat. At a party thrown Sunday night in honor of George McGovern, the party's 1972 nominee, many recalled the former president's standing as a young, antiwar McGovern Democrat. Even in 1992, Clinton's language on economics was populist.

The testimony of two Democrats here, quite different in age and experience, spoke to Clinton's protean magic. Anna Ekindjian, 27, cast her first vote for Clinton in 1996. The development director of Progressive Majority, she describes her own views as to the left of Clinton's. Yet she feels in his debt. "I felt that when he said something, he gave me language," Ekindjian said. "He articulated things that I had thought about but did not quite know how to talk about."

Sen. Charles Schumer, 53, New York's senior Democratic senator, also spoke of Clinton as a man who tutored Democrats in the ways of "staying in touch with average Americans" and thus inspiring strong loyalty among African American voters while winning substantial support among middle-class whites.

Being a Clinton Democrat is thus as much about being in tune with the needs of a particular political moment as it is about ideology. That's where the Obama Democrats of the future could find their opportunity. Obama, today's featured speaker, is a Chicago state senator heavily favored to win the Illinois U.S. Senate race this fall. On paper, he's quite different from Clinton: an African American urban liberal who opposed the Iraq war.

Yet Obama, like Clinton, is a skilled reconciler of differences. In a party destined to grow more diverse, Obama's own biracial background, as he points out himself, embodies the new American mix. And Obama, like Clinton, has married his own tale of upward mobility to an economic populism that has won him broad support among working-class and rural whites. Obama looks like the figure at the end of that bridge to the 21st century that Clinton promised to build.

But this week's Democratic theme is surely "We're all Kerry Democrats now." It's a vexing term. Allison Dobson, former press secretary to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, said a Kerry Democrat "is not as easily defined as a Wellstone Democrat or a Clinton Democrat -- though even those groups were not monolithic." The "deep hunger" to defeat George Bush defines the party's energy, says Dobson, who is now working for Kerry, and Kerry's central asset has been his ability to give leadership to the diverse groups united toward that end.

Nowhere is it written that a candidate is required to etch his name on a distinct grouping in a party. And Kerry has no reason to disrupt the peace brokered among Democratic factions first in the Clinton years and now in the crusade against Bush. But it would behoove Kerry to follow both Clinton and Obama in marrying his personal biography to his public goals. Kerry is being nominated, after all, in large part because the war on terrorism led Democrats to put forward a combat veteran whom they hope voters will judge as tough enough in a time of danger.

What will it take to create "Kerry Democrats" as a new breed? Kerry will have to make the case that neither the Clinton Democrats of the past nor the Obama Democrats of the future are quite suited to this moment. Kerry must brand this time as his, and his alone. And he will have to give Democrats such as Ekindjian a new language for describing the world after Sept. 11.