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San Diego Postcard: Dole's Dog, Sequin Vests, and GOP 'Surfers'

By Linda Feldmann and Kurt ShillingerStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 1996


Newt Gingrich takes the microphone at an outdoor Travis Tritt concert, gives a pep talk about freedom, and the crowd goes wild.

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A twenty-something Republican woman with long blond hair rants excitedly to a male lawyer-to-be about a chance encounter with the Senate Budget Committee chairman: "Pete Domenici! It was so cool!"

An evangelical minister dances alongside women in sequin vests while everyone in the hall chants, "Dole Kemp, Dole Kemp, Dole Kemp."

Nothing quite unsettles the natural order of things like political conventions. They are the pageants of public discourse and summer camp for the Beltway Bound. Even in San Diego, where Republicans pulled off the most staged conclave in party history, the sun-splashed sidewalks and convention corridors were scenes of spontaneity.

The following vignettes, collected by Monitor correspondents, capture some of the flavor of the week.

Dorothy, this isn't Kansas

TWO older women seated in the lobby of the US Grant Hotel are no ordinary GOP convention-goers. They're Bob Dole's sisters, Gloria Nelson and Norma Jean Steele, both back living in their hometown of Russell, Kan., after years elsewhere.

What has the public failed to grasp about their famous brother, the sisters are asked. Mrs. Nelson sighs with frustration. "I don't understand what people want to know," she says. "It's all been out there, his record is there.... He's a gentle man. He doesn't like to talk about himself.... He's a very Christian man, he's a very honest man, he's a good man to his family. He's a good father to his daughter; he's a good husband to his wife. They're very close."

When prodded for any stories about childhood mischief, Nelson recalls the time Bob snuck out in their parents' car and banged into a post. Mrs. Steele chimes in: "When he got home he had to tell the folks what he'd done. He got in trouble."

As an adult, the sisters say, Bob has been good about keeping in touch. When he decided to quit the Senate, they said they got calls in advance from "the girls" - referring to close aides who work for the senator, such as Jo-Anne Coe.

Steele allows that she was a little upset when he gave up his Senate seat, but adds, "I knew he needed to do this to give his full time [to campaigning]." The sisters say they'll do some campaigning for Mr. Dole, and already have a few dates lined up with Republican women's clubs in Kansas.

Mussed-up messenger

Magazine publisher Steve Forbes, once the scourge of Dole's presidential campaign, has become a minor darling of the Republican convention, sporting a permanent smile as he runs from one speaking engagement to another.

And why not? His close friend and political ally, Jack Kemp, is now the nominee for vice president. And the slogan from Mr. Forbes's own defunct campaign, "Hope, Growth, and Opportunity," and his policies, supply-side, tax-cut-driven economics, are now the mantra of the Republican Party.

"Even though the messenger got mussed up a bit in the primaries, the message did get through," an ebullient Forbes told a forum sponsored by GOPAC, the fund-raising arm of Newt Gingrich's political machine.

The Republicans in Congress erred in talking about budget deficits and spending cuts, Forbes opined, rather than preaching the upbeat message of tax cuts.

"Tax cuts give us growth," he told the crowd in a San Diego hotel ballroom. "If it makes the budget process more difficult, so what? What are we paying our servants in Washington for?"

The moderator gushed: "Had it not been for the courage of his candidacy, we would not be in the position we are in today, where we are going to win with Dole."

Forbes basked briefly in the standing ovation that followed, stopped momentarily to sign autographs outside the door, and went on to his next adulatory moment.

Mr. Dole's neighborhood