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

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

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

Demographically speaking, John-Paul de Bernardo - a white male who probably makes a decent income (he's a lawyer in Charlotte, N.C.) - is a typical delegate. And when asked about his top concern, he offers a typical GOP delegate response: "Taxes are just way too high, state, local and federal." To pay for the tax cut, he says, "nothing should be off the table. It's a case of reforming everything."

On welfare reform, he says he knows that it will be hard for some people to change their habits, but they just have to. For some, public assistance is "a cocaine, it's a drug," and they've been conditioned to keep taking it.

For blacks, the welfare issue is one reason some are uncomfortable with either major party. They feel neither side has addressed the needs of black communities, such as safer streets and schools and better jobs. Welfare epitomizes the economic breakdown in the cities, they say.

"Blacks are leaving the Democratic Party for economic reasons," says Vincent Goodman, a delegate from West Palm Beach, Fla. "But the philosophy of the Republican Party did not encompass black communities [in the past]. I hope that, with the Dole-Kemp ticket, we'll have a president for all the people."

Madeleine Gelsinon, an alternate delegate from Sudbury, Mass., is not your typical Massachusetts Republican. Strongly anti-abortion, she favored Pat Buchanan in the primaries. Now, she says, "I'm still not 100 percent with Dole." And she wasn't at all upset when Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, an abortion-rights supporter, was denied a speaking spot at the convention.

Over in the Georgia delegation, a conversation with a young man named Mark Galyardt reveals yet another connection to ... Russell, Kan. It turns out his grandfather lived two doors down from the Doles and was also involved in politics with Bob Dole.

"When my grandfather was running for sheriff, Bob Dole was running for county attorney," says Mr. Galyardt, holding up a photo he happened to bring along of Dole and his grandfather together.

In 1985, the younger Galyardt worked for Dole as a summer intern. "He's the hardest working man I've ever met in my life," Galyardt says. "His day started usually at 6:30 in the morning, when he'd show up in a limo with the dog, and my first job as an intern was to walk the dog around the Hart Senate Office Building. You knew you were working for Bob when you had Leader on a leash. And then he'd knock off at 9 or 10 at night..... Anybody who has any questions about his age, try keeping his schedule for a week or a day, and you'll see he's full of energy."

Zinc-oxide Republicans

'Yeah, see that tree over there? I'm sure a couple of our guys are Republicans," says Rino Sclippa, his curly brown hair overflowing through the busted top of a broad-rim straw hat, his nose coated in zinc oxide. He and his crew from the Ocean Beach Geriatric Surf Club are here to entertain at a GOP beach party on the bay shores north of San Diego.

Kneeboarder Bob (Halfman) Clark confesses that he's a Republican. So is Mike Fowler. And Bob Welch. In fact, GOP Congressman Brian Bilbray is a surfer.

It makes sense when you think about it. You can't chase the endless summer forever. Messrs. Clark, Fowler, and Welch are middle-aged guys with their own businesses or classrooms. They resent federal regulations and paperwork requirements as do other entrepreneurs. It just so happens they like to wear loud shirts, catch some waves in their free time, and speak in the laid-back tongue of Pacific salt and sand.

Unconventional moments

Politics Makes Strange Seatfellows Department: Wrestler Matt Ghaffari, who won a silver medal in Atlanta, sprawled expansively in his wrestling warm-ups in a VIP seat next to former US Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who was looking askance.

Best Jim Carville sighting: In the Marriott lobby, autographing Dole-Kemp signs with a wicked grin.

Next book: "The Photographer's Song": When exiting the print press area in the hall, pint-sized author/pugilist Norman Mailer lurched into Monitor photographer Robert Harbison and impaled himself on a camera lens.

* Staff writers Peter Grier, Daniel Sneider, and Lawrence J. Goodrich contributed to this report.

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