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Much hobnobbing, little drama

Utah’s Walker laments event’s lack of meaning

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PHILADELPHIA — National political conventions may be a great time for some, hobnobbing with fellow political big-shots, seeing some famous people, but they no longer fulfill the need of picking a candidate.

And that has Lt. Gov. Olene Walker calling for change.

"We need to make the conventions mean something," she said.

Walker, who is here with Utah's Republican delegation for four days at the National Republican Convention, was to meet Monday for two hours with 99 delegates from other states making up a special committee established to discuss the future of the party and its conventions.

"But what can you do in two hours? I know it's the American way (of picking a party candidate), all this hoopla. But it seems an unnecessary expense for all of it," she said of the convention. Nominating Texas Gov. George Bush is a foregone conclusion and an afterthought to the partying and political networking that will take place at the convention, which opened Monday morning.

With conventions giving way to primaries in picking candidates, "we're left with platforms and events programmed for TV" during the national party gatherings, Walker said.

Walker just finished a stint as chairwoman of the national lieutenant governors association. Derek Smith, Utah's 2nd District GOP nominee, was part of that political showcasing Monday morning.

Twenty GOP House candidates from districts national Republicans believe are key to holding their slim six-vote majority, gave a one-minute speech before a morning session of the convention. But attendance at the Monday convention in the Compact Center was sparse.

In prepared remarks of 115 words, Smith, who founded and is part-owner in an Internet company, mentioned education, children and the "new economy."

"We are Republicans. We get the Net!" he said, a jab at Vice President Al Gore and his earlier misstatements that he helped create the Internet.

Political conventions aren't the only nominating tool Utah's chief election officer wants fine-tuned. Walker is not pleased that Bush's aides over the weekend killed a plan, backed by her association and others, to revamp presidential primaries in a way that would give states like Utah more say in nominating the party's presidential candidate. Among the options in the plan were organizing regional primaries or having small states hold their primaries first.

Utah delegate Dan McConkie said Bush's people didn't want the primary system changed because their candidate handled well the current "front-end loaded" primaries, where big states dominated. And McConkie, who sat on that convention committee, said he didn't want it changed.

Some large states' legislatures — controlled by Democrats — could manipulate regional primaries or a plan where smaller states went first, said McConkie, a Davis County commissioner.

Utah's March 17 presidential primary was in effect a nonevent because California, New York and other big states had basically decided Bush's nomination in their respective primaries three days earlier.

"This debate over the primaries isn't over," said Leavitt, who fought hard for a Western states primary only to see three states ultimately join for the March 17 vote. "Those plans will be back. Some Bush people just didn't want to have him go through (a different primary system in 2004) for his re-election. But that issue isn't dead."

While Walker wondered out loud the benefits of the convention and Bush's killing of plans to reorganize presidential primaries, Leavitt said the three national conventions he's attended have taught him to be patient "and settle into the spirit" of the events. In other words, don't expect much.

"You just kind of have to say you were glad you were here," he said. "It is a time to think about what parties are about. Conventions used to be high intrigue — the actual picking of presidential candidates, sometimes behind the scenes."

While those days are gone, primaries have broadened the peoples' voice in picking candidates and by and large that's a good thing, the governor said.

Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka, for one, is pleased with the convention so far. She was on the national platform committee and says a strong right-to-life plank was kept during meetings Friday and Saturday. "There are only a few things I don't like" in the draft platform that goes before the convention Monday afternoon, she said.

"We got what we wanted on the moral and social issues," she said — strong anti-abortion wording, all family planning out of schools, abstinence only in sex education. "The platform is more conservative," after the committee's work, than the original draft put forward with a number of George W. Bush's suggestions, she said. "But it is not much more (conservative) than the (1996) national platform."

Ron Fox, who manages Bush's Utah campaign, saw it a bit differently. He also sat on the platform committee and said attempts to modify the draft from the right and the left failed. "Middle America will not be displeased with any of it," Fox said. "Middle America won."

A party convention does give the opportunity for protests, and Philadelphia saw a number of them Sunday. Group after group — from free-traders to pro-choicers to animal rights advocates and environmentalists — gathered at Eakins Oval, below the grand steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to listen to speeches and march down Benjamin Franklin Parkway toward the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

The loudest, but still peaceful, confrontation took place when hundreds of pro-choice marchers passed hundreds of pro-life supporters who lined the parkway on both sides holding placards that read Abortion Kills Children.

Bush isn't expected in town until Wednesday. But his vice presidential pick, former Wyoming congressman Dick Cheney, left the Bush bus trip winding its way from Texas to Philadelphia, to make a surprise visit.

Speaking to reporters in a downtown Wyndham Hotel — and surrounded by most of the GOP governors (Leavitt missed the event because his flight came in late) —Cheney said: "We will ensure no children are left behind.

"We will reform our Social Security system and rebuild our defense," said the man who served as former President George Bush's defense secretary.

"But most of all, we want to make Americans proud again by giving them a president they can respect," Cheney said.

He'll address the convention Wednesday night during a prime-time speech.

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