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Convention Puts Pep in GOP Step

Big question now is whether party can build on momentum

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 1996



SAN DIEGO

It looks as if Bob Dole got the successful Republican convention he was looking for. The question now is whether the energy that has infused delegates here will be matched by a real boost in Mr. Dole's standing among American voters at large.

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Maintaining momentum will be a critical chore for the Dole-Kemp team in days and weeks ahead. GOP activists may be excited, but unless the Republican ticket starts winning over independents and disaffected Democrats it has little hope of capturing the White House in November.

"We think the convention has been very helpful," says Vin Weber, Dole campaign national co-chairman. "But there's no question that a convention bounce can be a transitory thing."

As of this writing, the now-official GOP nominee had yet to give his important acceptance speech. But the first three days of proceedings, from the viewpoint of campaign officials, went so well that only a disastrous Dole address could overshadow the convention's good feelings.

Delegates seemed to love everything from Colin Powell's oratory to Elizabeth Dole's Oprah-style walkabout as she narrated the events of Bob Dole's life. The convention floor was as bunting-bedecked and boisterous as any since the party's Reagan glory days.

"Conventions have a way of turning people on. They're really one big pep rally," says Jack Mueller, a delegate from Cheyenne, Wyo., attending his 10th such gathering.

Firing up core supporters is the first duty of any well-run political convention. The second is shaping a simple message for a larger American audience, and thus the show from the San Diego podium attempted to hammer home two themes.

The GOP and inclusion

Pat Buchanan may have won battles during last week's platform committee meetings, but once the TV cameras turned on and the convention began, it seemed as if Republican moderates had suddenly hijacked the meeting. General Powell's speech was about reaching out; New York Rep. Susan Molinari's keynote stressed family and inclusion (in between shots at President Clinton). Prime-time speaking slots went to Republicans with disabilities and minority members such as Rep. J.C. Watts, an African-American from Oklahoma.

"There's been an effort to highlight minorities at this convention, perhaps out of proportion to their presence in the party," says Mr. Weber.

Party officials bragged continually about vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp's appeal to black, Hispanic, and Jewish voters. Some in San Diego observed that the Republicans seemed to be trying to steal Democratic demographics - and that in retaliation the Democrats would broadcast pictures of nothing but white Southern males when their convention starts at the end of the month.

The pro-life movement remains a dominant force in the GOP, and Mr. Buchanan himself is still a formidable party figure. After only a few days on the ticket, Mr. Kemp is suddenly taking a more hard-line stance on the presence of the children of illegal aliens in US public schools.

But in San Diego, anyway, Buchanan led no pitchfork-wielding revolutionaries on the convention floor.

Republicans - the party of change

Dole's long Senate service has made him seen an unlikely agent of change to many voters. That's a big negative as far as Dole strategists are concerned, as it's axiomatic in politics that voters won't throw out a presidential incumbent unless they think his challenger will clean house.

Two events have turned that perception upside down in recent weeks. The first is the presentation of Dole's tax-cutting plan, which the campaign sees as finally drawing a policy distinction between their man and the White House. The second is Jack Kemp. Polls show many voters regard Mr. Kemp as a government outsider who's likely to shake up the status quo.

Snapshot tracking polls already show that Americans' perception of Dole is changing, Dole officials say. They say internal surveys show that the GOP nominee's "favorable" rating is rising - potentially, a more important development than the simple lopping of a few points off President Clinton's electoral lead.

It's not yet clear whether the GOP convention has affected the overall election race. Some snap polls have showed substantial Dole gains, while others show the man from Russell, Kan., still mired 20 points behind his incumbent rival.

In any case, a mere convention bounce won't be enough to bring Dole victory. The convention over, he needs to reach out beyond the core GOP audience. "There's a whole disaffected constituency out there that doesn't like Bill Clinton in the White House, but doesn't yet believe we're the solution," says Mike Hellon, an Arizona member of the Republican National Committee.

But has the GOP's new two-pronged message penetrated much beyond the two-block San Diego convention area? One Democratic analyst who's looked at recent overnight surveys doesn't think so. Voters didn't "pay much attention to the convention," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

A San Diego Union-Tribune/Hotline poll Ms. Lake did with a GOP colleague found that "two-thirds of voters were unaware of, or said it made no difference, what Colin Powell said Monday night," she says.