Philadelphia parallel

And so after an agonizing four months, we have arrived here to thaw out Campaign 2000.

More than 2,000 Republican delegates and 15,000 journalists have come to watch our presidential race - locked in the deep freeze since George W. Bush and Al Gore secured their respective nominations - (we desperately hope) heat up.

And while much of America seems to be greeting this convention with a collective yawn, the event is huge news here.

For Philadelphia, often the forgotten child of East Coast cities, the convention is a chance to have the spotlight to itself. And the city is doing what it can to make the most of the event. If you have a sign, they have the bunting.

The last time this town was this excited the Eagles were in the Superbowl and Sylvester Stallone was a star.

Seeing as we are in the city of Brotherly Love, we can expect to hear the theme from "Rocky" a lot over the next few days on TV and in the convention hall - it is this city's unofficial soundtrack. And in all likelihood we'll hear more than a few speeches and commentaries that liken George W. to Rocky Balboa, Stallone's film alter ego. We'll hear how he can take a punch, how he never stops fighting, how he has the heart of a winner. It is to be expected. It's that or compare the man to a cheese steak.

Of course, the Rocky metaphor is a poor fit for Bush. He isn't really an underdog; he's ahead. He isn't the challenger out of nowhere; he's the son of a former president. He isn't a boxer. He isn't from Philadelphia. And he is, thankfully, not in the habit of uttering the word "Yo."

But why be so literal? In the larger scheme of things, this convention is just like Rocky - or at least a Rocky movie. There will be flash and flare.

There will be moments that pull on the heart strings. And there will be an attempt to create something exciting even though we all know the outcome beforehand.

This is all well and good. In fact, these days the Hollywood action movie formula is the goal of any political convention - Republican or Democratic.

We meet our man, we learn about his life, his struggles and how he overcame them, and in the end he stands on the stage, foes vanquished, victorious.

We are ready for the sequel, coming to our television this November. But Bush and the GOP have to be careful. Formula is fine, especially when you're out front, but it can hold dangers.

The last time the Republicans held their convention in Philadelphia was 1948 and the circumstances were similar: A popular Republican governor took the nomination and prepared to ride an overwhelming lead to victory over a maligned Democrat. The nominee's name was, of course, Thomas Dewey and his opponent was Harry Truman.

There are obvious differences in the times, the men, and media of today, but there are some disturbing parallels if you are a George W. supporter.

In large part, Dewey wound up losing his race because he sat back and coasted. His campaign didn't provide many chances for errors, but it was based more on riding a lead than reaching out.

For all the talk of a bold new agenda - every candidate's favorite promise - there are not a lot of signs in the Bush camp of bold anything. The GOP platform looks an awful lot like the platforms of 1996 and 1992.

And the cabinet Bush has in tow with him here - Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, perhaps Lynne Cheney - seems more designed to inspire nostalgia than change.

In the next few days Bush and his surrogates have to begin to reach beyond simply outlining ideas in platitudes. They have to begin to explain, in real terms, a compelling rationale for his candidacy.

In other words: Why him?

Bush maintains he is a different kind of Republican; he must begin to explain how.

What does "compassionate conservative" really mean? Is Bush, as he said last week, a Dick Cheney conservative? Or is he, as he stressed earlier, a Tommy Thompson/John Engler moderate? And most important, what exactly is it that makes him either one?

If Bush doesn't use Philadelphia to begin to answer a few of these questions, he does so at his own risk.

The temptation is to cruise; but if he does, he may find himself trapped in a different sort of Rocky dilemma - trapped in a sequel of a story Republicans would rather forget.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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