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Archive for Sunday, August 29, 2004

Bush seeks right message for N.Y. crowd

August 29, 2004

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The Republicans used to be a party that was whispery quiet -- shy, deferential, as reserved as your father's gray wool suit. Maybe that's why the GOP has never held a convention in the nation's biggest, gaudiest, loudest and brightest city.

Until now. They're gathering this very weekend in New York for the Republican National Convention, and suddenly this is not a quiet or deferential party anymore. Barry Goldwater set the Republicans on the road to revolution, Ronald Reagan gave life and spirit to the party, and George W. Bush is presiding over a revival meeting this week.

In the contemporary age, the most a party can hope for from its convention is a phrase, preferably not something like "Come home, America" (George S. McGovern's reprise line from 1972, which sent Democrats out of their familiar political home in droves) or "Read my lips" (made famous by President Bush's father and then by a zillion mocking cabaret comedians).

The modern model: "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty."

So one of the goals the Republicans have in the next four days is to sow four words, or perhaps a few more, in the country's consciousness. It won't be easy. The nation is coming down from its Olympics fix, so you can imagine the pent-up demand for weeding and neighborhood strolls in the evening hours. And, of course, the networks, following the precedent set last month in Boston, are scheduling only four hours of coverage.

Nonetheless, the Republicans have some convention challenges and goals. Here's a viewers' guide to the proceedings in New York:

Broadening GOP appeal

What's the profile of the New York Republicans? The days of broad-based American parties are over; there are few conservatives left in the Democratic Party, few liberals in the Republicans. And yet the face the Republicans are putting to the world this week is hardly conservative -- or at least the faces the Republicans are putting on display are hardly those of conservatives. The marquee speakers, Govs. George Pataki of New York and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, aren't exactly poster children for the Reagan Revolution. From the roster of speakers, you'd almost think this was Nelson Rockefeller's party.

"You try at a convention to put up people who have some star power," Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said in an interview last week. "Where is star power created? New York and California. Guys from Pittsburgh and Kansas aren't star power. You have to have the former mayor of New York and the governor of New York at a New York convention. And how do you ignore the governor of California? If you didn't invite them, then you'd have the story that Bush didn't invite the moderates in the party. They were stuck."

Remember that the two men who will receive the Republican nominations are true conservatives. But the tone of the Republican convention will provide glimpses of just how conservative the GOP ticket will seek to appear in November. Worst-case scenario for the Republicans: not conservative enough for the troops, too conservative for undecideds and for Democrats uncomfortable with Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Dealing with hot issues

What happened to the social issues? A new Pew Research Center poll shows what you have probably suspected all along, that the public regards the Republicans as friendlier to religion than the Democrats. Many of the planks in the Republican platform appeal to religious conservatives.

But there are tensions inside the tent the Republicans are constructing in Madison Square Garden. Vice President Cheney last week broke ranks on gay marriage. Republicans increasingly are worried about fissures in their own camp over the issue of embryonic stem-cell research. GOP strategists believe many religious conservatives didn't vote in 2000 because of late-breaking reports of a 1976 episode involving drunk driving by Bush. For all those reasons, the way the Republicans address social issues this week is important.

Who's the front-runner? Sen. Bob Dole thought there was fateful symbolism in the fact that he was assigned at the 1984 Dallas convention to hotel room 1988. He, and others like Jack F. Kemp and Pierre S. du Pont IV, used the 1984 convention to lay the groundwork for campaigns four years later. It was all for naught; the sitting vice president, George H.W. Bush, swept to the nomination.

But this time no one thinks the sitting vice president is a plausible presidential candidate four years hence. So the maneuvering in New York could have real consequences. Indeed, you might think of the hospitality suites and outings sponsored this week by W wannabees as the first caucuses of the 2008 race. (If your social interests tend more to finding good hors d'oeuvres than to worrying about prayer in the schools, then the New Hampshire and Iowa delegations will be very heaven for you.) The next presidential race is already on.

Bush must get comfortable

What did Bush actually say? The president and his speech writers have been toiling for weeks over Bush's remarks for Thursday evening. War president, economic strategist, compassionate conservative -- he will claim all these roles. The Republicans ridicule Kerry for his tendency toward nuance. Bush doesn't do nuance. Nor subtlety. If he's comfortable in these roles, it will be apparent. If not, that will be clear, too.

The Republicans (who learned this happy lesson from Reagan) and the Democrats (who learned it less happily from Jimmy Carter) know the most important truth in presidential politics: Presidents running for re-election prevail if they're comfortable in all their roles. Those who aren't end up seeking comfort in the role of ex-president.

-- David Shribman is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.

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