Why GOP is going into a Democratic lair

By choosing New York as convention site, Republicans hope to use city as a stage to show unity after 9/11 and party diversity.

Now that Mickey and Minnie have muscled the strippers out of Times Square and 9/11 has transformed the city of sin into a symbol of American unity, New York is finally ready for the Republicans.

And with the Grand Old Party's announcement this week that it plans to hold its first convention here in history, the sons and daughters of Lincoln finally appear ready for the Big Apple.

But there's no question it will still be foreign territory. Democrats outnumber Republicans here 5 to 1. And despite all the changes, New York remains the home of the unapologetic Upper West Side liberal and the original red-diaper baby - the progeny of America's idealistic left.

Yet the city is clearly excited about rolling out the red carpet for the nation's conservative leaders. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican only since he decided to run for office in 2001, called the decision an "incredible boost." Gov. George Pataki, whose broad-minded views regularly raise conservative eyebrows, says it sends a message to the world that "New York is back."

Even former Democratic Mayor Ed Koch called the decision "wonderful for New York and wonderful for the Republicans."

The quadrennial event will indeed bring more than 50,000 straw-hat-wearing, flag-waving conventioneers to Madison Square Garden, generating more than $150 million dollars - a much needed boost in these deficit-riddled times.

But the general consensus among the city's pols and pundits is that the Republicans themselves and President Bush will benefit most from the week of festivities along Eighth Avenue.

"It was a very wise move," says New York analyst Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at Progressive Policy Institute. "This is a chance for the Republicans to run counter to type. And the moment that defined the Bush presidency and its triumphs happened here. And so far, it's having a better run than any Broadway show."

For many Republicans, the decision to come to New York was a no-brainer. Tampa, Fla., would have evoked images of hanging chads and Supreme Court interventions. New Orleans just helped put a Democrat over the top in a hard-fought Senate battle. Not only does New York instantly elicit 9/11, but it also provides a good backdrop for Mr. Bush to showcase his vision of the Republican Party as a diverse and inclusive tent.

No matter that he won only 17 percent of the vote here in 2000. That doesn't mean this is inherently hostile territory. "There are lots of Republicans in New York. They just don't live here," says John Mollenkopf, a political scientist at the City University of New York. "They work and make their money here. They just happen to live in Westchester and the suburbs."

While no one believes that Karl Rove and the president's other advisers seriously think the convention could help them win New York next time around, it is sure to make the Democrats, who've always taken it for granted, sit up and notice.

"It means New York's in play," says Mayor Koch, with a sense of delight in his voice.

And New Yorkers, always quick to spot a good deal, won't be shy about using the forum as well. Marcia Bystryn, executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, notes that while they have endorsed Republicans in the past, like Mr. Pataki, the Bush administration's current environmental policies are "very troubling."

She hopes to work with local convention planners to present an alternative view. "This may be the occasion for President Bush to see the light," says Ms. Bystryn. "And not just on conservation issues, but on urban environmental issues as well."

Some New Yorkers have even mused wistfully - although not too seriously - that the event could move the national party closer to the moderate and liberal Republican roots that historically have sprung from the Northeast.

But political considerations aside, many New Yorkers are looking forward to the summer of 2004.

"Hey, I live in New York, on the Upper West Side, and I think it's great we're going to have a convention," says pollster Maurice Carroll. "They're a lot of fun. This city really knows how to throw a party."

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