A confusing convention - GOP 'surrounded by the enemy'

The CNN Diner is in a prime location in this city. At the corner of 8th Avenue and 34th Street, it sits kitty corner from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, the Manhattan home of Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad, and an alphabet soup of subway trains. And you can't miss it. The large red CNN logo stands out even in this sign-cluttered burg.

Considering the flood of people that flow past it every day, you might expect the diner to be crammed full of New Yorkers, but it isn't really. And even if a regular Joe wanted to drop in and get the blue plate special he couldn't, because the CNN Diner doesn't exist, really. It has all the trappings of a diner. There are chrome stools and booths, and waiters dressed in CNN aprons and shirts. But there's no real diner - it's more of a VIP/media lounge cum TV-show set.

For the Republican Convention, CNN has rented the space that is normally home to the Tick Tock Diner to use as a studio, where it will carry on some of its programs in a diner atmosphere. Because ... well, why not? Coming soon: the Fox News Jazz Club and Shooting Pool With the News on MSNBC.

But somewhere under the diner's twinkling sign sits the soul of this convention.

Political conventions in 2004 are many things, of course. By now you surely know the litany. They are dinosaurs and old pointless habits and good excuses for journalists to run up expense accounts, but rarely have they ever been Dadaist performance art. Welcome to the 2004 Republican Convention, America's first mainstream postmodernist political gathering. It may not be real or even cohesive, but it's some show.

There are a lot of emotions in the air here. Excitement from the Republicans who feel as though the campaign is turning in their favor. Anger from New Yorkers, many of whom will be happy to tell you how unhappy they are that the Republicans are here.

The prevailing feeling here, however, is just weirdness - from the Bush supporter wearing the "hippies smell" T-shirt to the antics of protesters who flooded Manhattan in a two-mile long march Sunday. In one scene from that protest, self-proclaimed anarchists set their dragon float on fire, but their representative asked press photographers not to take photos that would identify the self-vandalizers by face "out of respect for the anarchists."

Yes, today's devil-may-care revolutionaries have more than just an appetite for disorder; they have representatives who are looking to set the terms of their coverage.

But the oddness goes beyond fake dining establishments and confused rebellion. This entire affair, from its location to its speakers, is hard to understand and explain.

Conventions for an unopposed incumbent are almost always less significant than those that celebrate the crowning of a new nominee. The "introduce himself to America" rationale for the festivities is gone as is the "healing the wounds of the primaries" reasoning. But this year is something special.

This is the first Republican convention in New York City and it will probably be the last for a long time. Even among the delegates, you can hear snickers about being "surrounded by the enemy" in this town where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1. A New York Times poll of delegates found 1 in 5 wished the party had picked a different locale for its assembly. The feelings are mutual. One store on 8th Avenue has gone so far as to announce its "Annoying Republican Convention Sale."

Meanwhile, inside the convention hall many of this week's big-name prime-time speakers - Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, Arnold Schwarzenegger - are stars in the party, but are also noticeably to the left of most of the delegates here and the president on issues such as abortion and civil unions for gays. They represent the center of a party that is controlled by its more conservative element.

This weekend at a Monitor lunch, Republican Chairman Ed Gillespie made a point of saying how the Republican Party is clearly President Bush's party now. If so, he seems awfully comfortable having so few power brokers stand with him on the party platform he helped build.

Last week, even Vice President Cheney joined the Centerward Ho! movement of the party when he restated his opposition to a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.

So the Republican Convention in 2004 may best be described thusly: A group of conservatives - in a city that doesn't want them and that they have no chance of winning - who have gathered to get fired up by listening to speeches from people they support but don't agree with on key issues.

Confused? Don't worry. Once the choreography of the conventions has cleared and the stretch run of this campaign kicks in, most of it won't matter anyway.

And if you're really at a loss, maybe one of the anarchists can take you out to lunch and explain it to you. Just don't go to the CNN Diner - it won't be here anymore.

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