Cover Story

LOCKING UP THE BIG GUNS

Trigger locks kept harsh rhetoric from accidentally firing in prime time, and the soft-focus GOP convention in Philadelphia successfully projected a new Republican image. But after a week of brotherly love, will the Bush-Cheney ticket be tough enough to finish off Gore and company?

Issue: "Locking up the big guns," Aug. 12, 2000

Ladies and Gentlemen, Jon Secada!" boomed the announcer's voice from the 200-plus speakers overhead. The Cuban-born singing sensation stepped into the spotlight to the sound of polite applause-not the squeals of teenage delight that normally greet him.

As he sang "Stop!" his current uptempo top-20 hit, the delegates tried in vain to clap along. By the end of the song, most had given up. But then Mr. Secada slowed the tempo, easing into a soft, romantic ballad that caught the attention of everyone in the hall. Within minutes, the 2,000-plus delegates on the convention floor were standing arm in arm, swaying back and forth to the lilting beat. The Texas delegation went one better, raising their white straw cowboy hats in a slow, synchronized wave.

The moment was beautiful, poetic, heartfelt-and completely soft focus. Mr. Secada crooned in English and Spanish. But words didn't really matter, anyway: The group hug among the delegates was motivated by warm feelings.

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It was an apt metaphor for an entire convention with the hard edges shaved and sanded smooth. From the ferns on the stage to the ideas in the air, everything was carefully packaged to come across as comfortable and nonthreatening. When television viewers tuned in for the networks' scaled-back prime-time coverage, they saw women talking about education and minorities talking about inclusion. Those wacky pro-lifers? Invisible. Those hard-hearted congressional Republicans? Quiet. That lecherous commander in chief? With the exception of Dick Cheney, convention speakers rarely ever mentioned him.

What a difference from the last convention with a Bush at the top of the ticket. In 1992, President Bush, eager to solidify support among conservative voters, gave choice speaking slots to religious-right big guns like Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan. Both men trained their rhetorical firepower on a long list of moral ills, from drugs to homosexuality to abortion. Though their speeches raised the roof at the Houston Astrodome, many historians and political analysts believe the harsh tone-particularly Mr. Buchanan's call for a "culture war"-drove millions of moderate voters into the arms of Bill Clinton.

In other words, the big guns of the religious right had shot their own party in the foot.

Not only were the guns silent this time, but strict rules by the Bush campaign imposed the equivalent of verbal trigger locks on convention speakers. There was to be no talk of sensitive subjects like abortion or gays in the military. Even Mr. Clinton, the bane of every Republican delegate here, was usually mentioned only by implication (Gov. Bush, in stark contrast to that unnamed current president, would restore "honor and dignity" to the White House). The tone of the tightly scripted convention was almost always positive, almost all the time.

Amazingly enough, no one seemed to mind. "We don't want to impose our views and dominate," insisted Pat Robertson. "All we want is a place at the table to express our views." His Christian Coalition was able to express its views, all right-several miles away from the convention site. Some 5,000 Coalition supporters packed the Grand Ballroom at Philadelphia's downtown Marriott Hotel on Tuesday afternoon for a succession of pulse-pounding speeches. Despite their remote location, the speakers remained positive. They praised the nominee. They loved his vice-presidential pick. And the party platform? Phylis Schlafly called it "a 100 percent victory" for conservatives.

The rank and file seemed to agree. In dozens of interviews after the rally, WORLD failed to find a single critic of the tone of the convention. Anne Peterson was typical. The Hawaiian delegate, wearing a purple lei and carrying a trio of red, white, and blue balloons, offered nothing but praise: "I think it's marvelous, absolutely wonderful. From my point of view, I don't think social conservatives have been stifled at all. I'm very strongly thrilled with the course the party has chosen to take."

Congressional Republicans also seemed satisfied with their circumscribed role at the convention. With polls showing Congress near record lows in public esteem, bogeymen like Tom DeLay and Dick Armey were kept under tight wraps. Rather than a steady stream of congressmen talking about bills and proposals, the convention featured common people-teachers, preachers, social workers-involved in "compassionate conservatism" at street level. Henry Hyde, one of the sidelined congressional stars, said he wasn't bitter. Like everyone else here, he just wanted to beat the Democrats in November. If that meant toning down the rhetoric in Philadelphia, so be it.

Of course, not everyone was convinced by the new, friendly face of the GOP. Protesters representing more than 45 different causes coordinated their efforts to disrupt the convention and send a message to the "political establishment." After the Christian Coalition rally, delegates found themselves unable to leave the hotel as burly security guards blocked the exits. The reason: Hundreds of protesters were choking the streets outside. Police swarmed in on bicycles, clamping plastic wrist cuffs on aging hippies and disaffected young slackers. "Power to the people!" the protesters yelled as some 300 of them were hauled off in police vans.

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