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Convention designed to overhaul GOP image

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PHILADELPHIA — George W. Bush and the Republicans are poised to unleash four days of scripted stagecraft, a telethon of minimal spontaneity that is designed to overhaul the party's image and promote conservatism with a friendly, diverse face in the City of Brotherly Love.

This quadrennial gathering of the party faithful, which opens Monday at the First Union Center, will be an extended exercise in what politicians call "message discipline" — meaning every speaker, video, banner and balloon is designed to tell inattentive voters that Bush is "a different kind of Republican," and that the Republicans are holding a different kind of convention.

The inevitable question is: different from what?

"Different," says Leslie Goodman, convention spokeswoman and Bush family friend, "from what has come before."

To achieve that difference, the Republicans will showcase Latinos, women, blacks, even a gay congressman. They will tap influences ranging from William McKinley to Bill Clinton. The McKinley campaign of 1896 bequeathed advice on how Republicans could reach immigrant workers; the Clinton of 1992 broke new ground in the art of people-based politicking.

There are skeptics — including some Republicans — who are ready to dismiss the convention as content-free marketing that masks the unpopular elements of the party agenda and puts a premium on conflict avoidance. Republican strategist Dan Schnur, a former aide in John McCain's campaign, cautioned: "The more tightly you focus the message, and lessen the chance for spontaneity, the greater the chance that casual TV viewers won't pay any attention."

But even if conventions have become lavish commercials, analysts say they still provide valuable clues to how a presidential candidate thinks, how he wants to be perceived, and how a party intends to offer itself to the public — in this case, as "different."

The GOP will claim, in its verbal and visual cues, that it has junked harsh ideological conservatism — the take-no-prisoners brand of conservatism that many Americans link to the government shutdown of 1995, the brand associated with Newt Gingrich, the fallen House speaker who is virtually an unperson these days in party circles. Its newly drafted platform declares that "government does have a role to play" in bettering people's lives.

It will claim to have renounced the polarizing conservatism of Patrick J. Buchanan, the erstwhile Republican who in 1992 used his prime-time speaking slot to whip delegates into a frenzy by vowing a "cultural war" and painting Clinton as, among other things, a friend of "militant leaders of the homosexual lobby." The 1996 platform bashed immigrants; the new draft, issued on Thursday, says, "We welcome these new Americans ... "

The party will seek to distance itself from some of its Clinton-hating impulses, from those GOP brethren who pursued the Lewinsky scandal, only to be slapped down in the 1998 congressional elections by voters who declared themselves fed up with partisan infighting.

And it will try to dispel any impression that Republicans are an intolerant bunch. Consider some of the people who will appear in person or in the videos: a Latino educator, a Latino businessman, a black female literacy expert, workers at a Latino community center, Latino children from a Texas school, the son of an immigrant farm worker who will address the convention in Spanish. And that's for starters.

The Bush team has reserved Tuesday night for foreign policy. Jack Pitney, a former party official who has worked on convention platforms, observed: "Not to be cynical, but" he sees the evening as an opportunity to show case an African-American national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

With so many minorities on display, a TV viewer might miss the fact that more than 90 percent of Republican delegates this year, as in previous years, are white.

"What Bush is trying to do at this convention is not unlike what Bill Clinton did at the Democratic convention in 1992," said Marshall Wittman, a Republican analyst and former Christian Coalition lobbyist. "Clinton's test was to separate himself from the old-style liberalism that voters had rejected. So he talked tough on crime and welfare, talked a lot about people taking 'responsibility' for their own lives.

"For Bush in 2000, the equivalent buzzword is "compassion. That's how he's trying to distinguish himself from the old conservativism. So this convention is an adaptation of the '92 Clinton model."

Clinton, borrowing from Ronald Reagan, also sold himself as an optimist. This week, the Republicans — under decree from the Bush campaign, which runs a very tight ship — will offer themselves as upbeat, inclusive, and eager to share with viewers the governing philosophy (limited, effective government) and citizen-friendly achievements (tax cuts, education reform) of their presidential nominee.

The messengers won't be just politicians in suits. Workaday people will ascend the podium to say their lives have been uplifted by the conservative policies of Gov. Bush.

Only four Capitol Hill Republicans are slated to speak, and one of them, U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, embodies Bush's message of inclusion. Kolbe is the only openly gay Republican in Congress.

Goodman, the convention spokeswoman, said: "By putting the emphasis on the unsung heroes in communities across the country, we can present the personification of Governor Bush's principles. These aren't the people you find on Sunday talk shows. These are people who have been impacted by policies, as opposed to the policymakers."

Democrats mastered the art of people-imagery during two Clinton conventions; he is gifted at putting a human face on the issues. Republicans figure that if they can do the same — and demonstrate how their policies would benefit the typical household — then voters will be drawn to their conservative reform message.

In recent years, many GOP strategists have concluded that voters don't care whether a policy is liberal or conservative — only whether it will improve their lives. As pollster David Winston, a former Gingrich aide, said a few weeks ago: "It's a failed strategy to be purely ideological. That sounds so obvious, but I think we lost it for a while."

Schnur, the Republican strategist, applauded the use of citizen speakers. "At this point, the average person probably has roughly the same name ID as many of the politicians who used to speak. A viewer doesn't say, 'Hey, honey, get in here, the lieutenant governor of Wyoming is going to speak!' "

The use of "real people," with emphasis on minorities, also is consistent with the game plan developed by Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove. The Texas consultant has long argued that Bush could win this year if he followed roughly the same strategy that catapulted Republican William McKinley into the White House in 1896.

The sitting governor of Ohio won handily after reaching out to the waves of new immigrants — Italian, Polish, German, Russian — who were transforming the U.S. economy. Executing a plan devised by party boss Mark Hanna, he raised record amounts of money from big business and offered working people a prosperous future in the free market; his slogan was "McKinley and the Full Dinner Pail."

At the turn of this century, it is Latinos who are the fastest-growing ethnic group; they are expected to make up roughly 8 percent of all voters in 2000, more than double their share in 1992. They are concentrated in states with the biggest electoral punch, and polls suggest they aren't nearly as committed to Al Gore as they were to Clinton. No wonder Rove wants to reach them; as he wrote in a college dissertation on the McKinley campaign: "A successful party had to take its fundamental principles, and style them ... for the new nature of the country and the new electorate."

To be sure, this styling of Republican principles was tried at the 1996 convention. There were podium appeals to Latinos. There was Elizabeth Dole exuding empathy, wading into the crowd with a cordless microphone. There was an effort to avoid controversy and subsume ideology; speakers were forbidden to discuss abortion. Gingrich was reduced to a speech praising the spirit of Olympic beach volleyball.

"But it didn't work in 1996," said Pitney. "We were nominating Bob Dole for president, and he already had a reputation as a hatchet man. This time, Republicans are running Captain Nice."

William Kristol, a GOP analyst and former senior aide to Vice President Dan Quayle, remembers that convention with distaste — and isn't any happier about this one. His magazine, the Weekly Standard, is currently lamenting "the sly substitution of sentiment for ideas."

Kristol said the other day, "With all this 'warm and fuzzy' stuff, there needs to be a message of substance, beyond just saying, 'We're really nice.' "

The Democrats insist they're unimpressed. Ed Kilgore, policy director at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said: "This convention is a deliberate attempt by the Republicans to misrepresent their own party. There won't be a word about their opposition to abortion, affirmative action, or gun control. There won't be a word about their opposition to civil rights for gays."

But Joel Rosenberg, a GOP strategist and former Steve Forbes campaign aide, said there was nothing warm and fuzzy about trumpeting partial privatization of Social Security — a weighty issue, once thought to be political suicide, that will be aired on the convention's third night.

Bush is "targeting the 'new investor' class," said Rosenberg. " ... He's really trying to get back to the classic roots of conservatism, which is shifting power ... into the hands of individuals and families."

Indeed, argues Wittman, the conservative analyst, the convention script is meant to highlight Bush's inroads into traditionally Democratic issues — education, health care, Social Security.

"To the untrained eye, this convention will look like a Democratic convention of yesteryear," Wittman said. "He is playing on Democratic turf. Partly, he is making a virtue out of political necessity, but also there hasn't been a Republican nominee in recent memory who can talk passionately about that stuff.

"In other words, 'a different kind of Republican' means someone who can invade Democratic terrain. In politics, it's a strength when you can play against type."

Goodman agreed that such a move was necessary. "If we only get Republican votes, we lose this election. So every single presentation at this convention is designed to reach out to new constituencies."

The tone of the dialogue matters, as well. In a break from tradition, speakers have been told not to bash Gore and the Democrats.

Many Republicans applaud this ban. "One of the lessons of 1998, and the impeachment fight," Winston said, "was that people told us, 'We're tired of hearing you attack the other side, tell us what your ideas are.' If you don't stand up and express ideas of your own, then you're not going to connect."

But the ban happened for other reasons. For one, Bush has never felt comfortable going negative. As a rookie candidate in 1994, while under withering attack from Texas Gov. Ann Richards, he said: "My mission is to keep the debate at a level where we talk about the future of our state, not focus on all kinds of silly stuff and one-liners and try to tear each other apart."

Or as convention spokeswoman Goodman said more recently: "George W. Bush is a different kind of messenger."

How different? Clinton swiped Republican issues, Bush is eyeing Democratic issues. Goodman denied any connection to the Clintonian model — up to a point:

"Clinton staked out his claim on issues, and he was able to connect with the concerns of people in 1992. He needed to boldly define himself. It was a challenger strategy, and now Governor Bush is running a challenger strategy. Clinton was a man of his time, and we believe that Governor Bush is a man of his time."


© 2000, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.