REPUBLICANS gathered here are anxiously awaiting the "defining moment," the speech with which they hope President Bush will breathe new life into his lackluster campaign for reelection.
But as the convention builds to tonight's climax, concerns about the party's hold on the White House seem somehow dwarfed by the massive spectacle under the Houston Astrodome.
The brilliant red-carpeted floor of the convention is like a microscope slide on which 2,210 delegates from around the country are scrutinized by the 15,000 members of the press, and by millions more television viewers at home.
If they are ideological soul mates, little else may unite this wildly disparate congregation of party faithful.
But during the four-day convention they were all pulled together, from housewives to presidential Cabinet members, getting their two-cents worth in on TV soundbites and nibbling hors d'oeuvres side-by-side at Texas barbecues.
Here is a sampling of the convention environment and how a few of the participants have reacted to the extravaganza that inaugurates the final lap of the 1992 presidential campaign.
Vermont delegate Susan Sweetzer, now attending her third convention, started at the top. In 1980, as a 20-year-old college senior, she was selected to deliver a brief seconding speech for Ronald Reagan.
"There were balloons falling, my state delegation was in the front row, and Tom Brokaw was right in front of me. It was an incredible experience. I was just a kid," Ms. Sweetzer says. The once-in-a-lifetime experience cemented her loyalties to the GOP.
SWEETZER says she became a Republican because the party stood for growth and confidence.
"I refused to believe all the talk that we couldn't have it as good as our parents. I didn't believe it then; I don't believe it now," she says.
She's stayed a member of the Republican Party because she believes it's a party that cares. A rape victim, she received help from Vermont Republicans when she set up a victims' aid group, Survivors of Crime, two years ago.
"You don't get that kind of support from a party that doesn't understand," she says.
As for George Bush, she insists he's gotten a bad rap from the press.
"The argument that George Bush doesn't understand mid-America is coming from the media," she says. "He understands where the regular folks of America are coming from. I think George Bush connects from the heart. He's one of us."
LIKE Sweetzer, delegates interviewed across the convention floor here were supportive of Mr. Bush, and seemed to be waiting for the president's speech to give them a reason to be enthusiastic again.
Though he may have disappointed Republicans in general for not being the kind of conservative Ronald Reagan was, and specifically for breaking his no-new-taxes pledge, most delegates aren't blaming him. Instead they point an accusing finger at Congress and the media for his failings.
"The media has a liberal bias; they're opposed to conservatives in government," says Steve Mosier, a delegate from Brush Prairie, Wash.
"If the media gives Bush fair coverage, that will be enough to reelect him. If George Bush doesn't win this election, he will have been beaten by the media, not Bill Clinton," Mr. Mosier says.
The problem, as Clay Foltz, co-chairman of the Kent County, Del., Republican Committee sees it, is slanted press coverage of the president - from the abortion issue to the economy. Such coverage, he believes, "captures elements of the population who may not even vote," distorting the way the majority of the voting public who picked Bush in the first place feels.
Further, Mr. Foltz says, the press wrongly interprets issues. For example, he says, the media say party divisions over abortion weaken Republican support for the Bush-Quayle ticket. But the insurance broker says his own pro-choice abortion stance doesn't diminish his support for Bush.
Terry Hayes, a small-businessman from Heber Springs, Ark., who is running for Congress, totally discounts what he says is liberally biased press coverage of the economy. "The so-called recession is media-driven hype," he says. "The standard of living is better here than anywhere in the world; we're the biggest exporter in the world.... What is the media talking about?"
THE Democratic Congress is the president's real problem, says almost every delegate given a chance to talk about their candidate.
"Changing the president is not the answer. You've got to change the Congress. Bush has to spell out his vision and say this time I'm not going to be kinder and gentler. I'm going to take on Congress and if I have to I'll go over the head of Congress to get things done," says Mark Boddicker of Walker Island, Alaska. Indeed, campaign officials and Bush himself in speeches in this first week of his campaign have been more aggressive in attacking the Democratic-controlled Congress. Delegates, hoping it is a taste of an aggressive tone-setting speech tonight, are pleased.
James Oberwetter of Texas remembers when Bush addressed a crowd of Texas Republicans and referred to Congress as "old goats."
"The crowd reacted like red meat had been thrown. Congress as an institution is broken and I want it fixed. I want the president to scream about it all over the country.
"When Truman took his message to America and pointed the finger of blame at Congress he got his point across."
OHIO delegate Frank Walker attended his first Republican convention when then-governor Louis Emerson invited him to Cleveland and made him a sergeant-at-arms. That was in 1936, the year Alf Landon was nominated to run against Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
He has attended every convention since, a string that is unmatched among Republican delegates. "There are older people at the convention, says the 85-year-old lawyer, who still practices on the main square where he started 42 years ago. "But no one can match my experience."
The best of his 15 straight conventions, he says, was in New Orleans in 1988, where George Bush was nominated. The most disappointing was in 1952, when fellow-Ohioan Robert Taft was defeated in a nomination bid by a military hero: Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"We were all for Bob Taft," Walker says. "Then the train rolled in carrying Ike and it was all over. Taft people were going around crying like it was a funeral parlor. It was taps for Taft. It sure was a sad place, but we all learned to love Eisenhower."
"For a long time I've offered a hundred-dollar bill for anyone who's been to more conventions," he says. "But I don't think anyone will get that hundred."
THEN there's first-time conventioneer Nicholas Paul, who was swept up in the enthusiasm created by the partisan speeches of Pat Buchanan and Ronald Reagan Monday night.
When he returned to his hotel room and watched the speeches again on TV, he had a different reaction.
"When I was on the floor I was jumping up and down with excitement," says the college sophomore from Washington, D.C.
"Watching it on TV, I realize that I was being manipulated. I'm almost ashamed for sharing that experience because the excitement and energy on the floor is not natural. It's awe-inspiring but numbing.
"The scenery and staging don't help people who are suffering. They're just providing an arena for politicians to put forth their own agenda."
Smithsonian Institution curator Larry Bird, who has studied political conventions through three presidential election campaigns, says he has had similar feelings about the effects of television on the process.
"The first speech I ever saw was Mario Cuomo [at the 1984 Democratic convention]," he says of the New York governor's now-famous oration. Though it was an awe-inspiring moment to be in the convention hall and to see the speech live, he recalls, "I still thought, `gee, I'd like to see that on television to see how good it really was.'" Mr. Bird says conventions are full of real-life history, glory, and misty-eyed moments, yet he has to fight the urge to use the camera's eye as his reference point for what constitutes reality. This, he says, is the way most Americans now experience the electoral process - disconnected from true participation in the events.
THE convention is theater. But the reality behind it has moved El Hadj Amadou Sow. The commerce minister of Africa's Republic of Guinea was observing the convention in anticipation of his nation's first-ever national democratic elections in December.
"When you stand and see what happens in this room," he says, pointing from a balcony to the convention floor, "you know you can no longer say that government can decide for the people without asking their opinion.
"Right now, we are learning about democracy. It seems to be a game but it's not a game. This is serious for the world. For us, if democracy failed in America that would mean that democracy is not true. I think America needs to explain to the world what its place is, and this illustrates it. The things going on under this dome, they are a hope for the other countries." Meanwhile, the 20,000 convention visitors became acutely aware that Texas owns the patent on superlatives.
Metropolitan Houston is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island, and cab-fare totals for crosstown trips to far-flung receptions, hotels, and Texas-barbecue restaurants seemed to approach the price of the plane ticket to get here in the first place.
Even making the cheap and environmentally correct choice to use the convention shuttle bus, South Carolinian Stephon Edwards and a group of his fellow delegates spent two hours trying to reach a reception in their honor.
Houston boasts that it is the most air-conditioned city in the world. Convention visitors were hauling around sweaters - and using them - on the advice of newspaper articles warning that summertime refrigeration can be bracing.
THE party line being promoted here is that Republicans are united.
When you see the convention floor ripple all at once with a wave of posters or a huge cheer, it's probably less a unity of sentiment than the work of whips - party functionaries, that is, not the Wild West kind.
Speeches drone on all day at these conventions, and crowds on the floor wax and wane. Mainly, a lot of jawboning is going on among milling delegates while speakers address the television cameras.
For appearances, though, a certain degree of excitement has to be maintained among delegates when there isn't a Ronald Reagan on stage to electrify them.
Ingrid Azvedo, for example, is the human equivalent of the "applause" sign. Her job as a California delegation whip is to cheerlead a diverse group including elegant Orange County housewives and sedate former Gov. George Deukmejian.
A supply of signs is stockpiled in anticipation of speakers. Ronald Reagan's Monday- night stemwinder was punctuated by California's 201-member delegation pulsating with "Reagan Country" signs, for example. "When we're in doubt as to what a particular speaker likes to hear [or see] we hold up Bush-Quayle [signs]," Mrs. Azvedo says.
What's the trick to a well-maintained delegation? "We train our delegates to pay attention," she says in the clipped accent of her native Germany.
ONE Republican moderate is very concerned about the radical right's grip on the convention.
"Do these people represent the majority of Republicans? I hope not."
"What do I do?" she wonders. "Do I leave my party? I'm not any more comfortable with the Democrats."
At least, that's what she thought.
Asked who she favors in 1996, she replied, "I wish Paul Tsongas would come back." She was mortified to learn that the former Massachusetts senator is a Democrat, but said, "He sounded like a Republican." Her kind of Republican, that is.
AS FOR Mr. Bush's address tonight, expectations are running high.
"We've had Reagan on Monday, [Texas Sen.] Phil Gramm on Tuesday, and Barbara Bush on Wednesday," says Texas delegate Fred Meyer. "The bases are loaded. Bush has to hit a home run."