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Over the decades, delegates wrangled with the issues of the day - postwar reconstruction, civil service, the federal government, taxes and tariffs, foreign entanglements - though the convention of 1876 boasted a forerunner of things to come. A fireworks display was staged from the top of the courthouse in St. Louis, where delegates had gathered in their first meeting west of the Mississippi River.

Competition between host cities also become a factor. In 1900, Democrats were lured to Kansas City by virtue of the community’s grand new convention hall - which burned to the ground three months before the festivities were to start. The city marshalled its forces and rebuilt the structure just in time.

Conventions that followed had distinctive moments. In 1920, the delegates dramatically supported the right of women to vote. Four years later, debates over the Ku Klux Klan forced the proceedings to drag on for 17 days, the longest on record. Franklin D. Roosevelt dominated four conventions in the Depression and World War II years, as delegates tapped their toes to a news campaign tune “Happy Days Are Here Again” and listened to Roosevelt’s advice.

“This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny,” he told them.

Yet when historians get to mulling over the darker side of things, they invariably cite the 1968 convention in Chicago, which was upstaged by antiwar protesters clubbed into submission by a force of 28,000 police, troops and Secret Service agents as live TV cameras chronicled the debacle.

The nation, however, appears to have a short memory. Most Americans are poised to watch at least some of the gavel-to-gavel coverage on myriad cable and broadcast networks - hoping to understand a complicated campaign and perhaps divine what the future holds.

“Political party conventions remain interesting to the millions of Americans who follow national politics. Convention speeches become previews for future generations of national leaders. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were all keynote convention speakers prior to their national runs,” said Susan Swain, president of C-SPAN.