GOP's message: Niceness wins

Republicans open their convention Monday, aiming to show unity and Reaganesque optimism.

On the eve of the 2000 Republican National Convention, the electricity in the voice of party activists is palpable: This is their year. The divisions of the past have been muted. They want the White House back. Badly. And when the Republicans convene in Philadelphia on Monday, they know their four-day confab is the party's first, best shot at showing the public - and most important, undecided and independent voters - that this is a new and improved Republican Party.

The speakers' list is chock-full of women, minorities, and "real people." The traditional "attack Democrats night" is out. Some of the old faces associated with divisiveness, even meanness, have been nudged off the stage or left office, such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Conservative populist Pat Buchanan has left the party altogether, removing from the GOP stage one of the party's most articulate and controversial figures.

"It's a lot easier to have harmony and unity if some people don't come to the party," says John Green, a political analyst at the University of Akron in Ohio. He says that George W. Bush - the affable Texas governor who will formally accept his party's presidential nomination next Thursday night has "done a pretty good job of portraying himself in a good light. The Republicans need to do the same thing in the convention that Bush has been doing in the campaign."

The trick for the Republicans will be to stage a feel-good convention that people actually want to watch, either on television or the Web. They have planned, essentially, a plot-free event - Governor Bush has already announced his running mate - and yet they want people to tune in anyway.

Further complicating their task, most Americans don't even know the convention is next week. The latest poll out of Harvard's Vanishing Voter project shows that 74 percent of the public is unaware of the convention's timing.

Year of contentment

Americans are a relatively contented lot this year. The danger, both during the convention and on election day, Nov. 7, is not that white males will be angry: It's that they'll go fishing.

The Democrats face the same challenge when they convene in Los Angeles on Aug. 14. The Republicans, at least, have a few rock stars in their midst: Gen. Colin Powell will address the convention on Monday night, and Sen. John McCain will speak on Tuesday.

Senator McCain's presence at the convention, and at the alternative "shadow convention" running simultaneously, may provide a little spark of news, as the politically minded watch to see how he behaves. McCain, after all, threatened to knock out Bush, the establishment's anointed one, during the primaries. He's known for speaking his mind, and he has broadly hinted at running for president in 2004 if Bush loses in November.

Bush's acceptance speech on Thursday night may also lure one of his biggest audiences of the campaign, as viewers tune in for a glimpse of the man who may be the next president. By convention time, voters are beginning to solidify their choices.

The Texas governor, and all the other players in this carefully scripted week, will be walking a fine political line: They need to show that they're the new and improved Republican Party, while honoring and building on the past, say Republicans.

"Literally and figuratively, the goal is to demonstrate that this is not your, 'father's Republican Party,' " says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a Republican pollster.

Bush has complicated that task by selecting as his running mate Dick Cheney, defense secretary under Bush's father, the former President Bush. Mr. Cheney and his wife, Lynne, also a major Republican figure, having served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, will be featured prominently in the proceedings next week. Mr. Cheney will address the convention Wednesday night.

But Bush's parents will make only cameo appearances. While the senior Bush was voted out of office in 1992, after one term, he and his wife are now remembered fondly by the public.

The junior Bush can use that to positive effect in the campaign, and at the same time carve out a new image. While his father the Easterner focused on foreign policy, the son with the Texas twang has made his centerpiece a domestic program built on "compassionate conservatism."

In Philadelphia, where activists have been gathered all week for platform hearings and other party business, there's an air of anticipation.

"I've never seen the Republican Party more unified and upbeat in the last eight years," says Steve Duprey, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, speaking from Philadelphia. "There's nothing like eight years in the wilderness to make people who might otherwise have arguments join the team."

To highlight that theme of unity, the convention planners have selected nightly themes that party regulars can gather around: education and healthcare on Monday, national security on Tuesday, economic prosperity on Wednesday, and strong leadership on Thursday.

More controversial matters have been relegated either to platform discussions (see abortion) or outside events, such as the shadow convention (see campaign finance).

No Rottweilers here

The leadership of the congressional Republicans, whose public approval ratings trail Bush's, has been largely sidelined. And in the end, they may need a convention bounce at least as much as Bush does: The GOP controls the House by only a six-seat margin, and in the Senate, the margin is now smaller, too, and the party is just as interested in keeping control of Congress as it is in regaining the White House.

But apparently the convention planners didn't want to take any chances, choosing to stress that this is "a different kind of convention for a different kind of Republican," convention general co-chairman Andy Card told reporters earlier this month.

Still, while civility will be the order of the day, and mean-sounding attacks on Democrats avoided, viewers can expect a generous helping of "compare and contrast" between Bush and Vice President Gore, the expected Democratic nominee.

Certainly, Republicans will use the Clinton-Gore record to rally their own troops, if not lure in independent voters. "I think people are tired, and of course Republicans are, of the antics of the Clinton-Gore administration," says Mr. Duprey of New Hampshire.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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