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.
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.
(Despite references to the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, the protesters, as a group, were whiter than the speakers at the Republican convention. After the protest was over, many boarded the R5 train, headed back to their parents' expensive homes in the leafy, Mainline suburbs west of the city.)
While the protests were a major pain to downtown office workers, most delegates hardly seemed to notice. This was their party, and nothing was going to spoil it. There were warehouse parties, Mardi Gras parties, auto shows, and river cruises. Barbecues and blues seemed to be everywhere. Restaurants and pubs tempted delegates with specials like "Red, White, and Blue Mousse" and "Politically Incorrect Martinis." Those able to land a room in the deluxe Ritz-Carlton Hotel could bathe in a tub sprinkled with red, white, and blue bath salts-and topped with a floating rubber elephant.
Still, there was a sense in Philadelphia that the party couldn't last. Though Mr. Bush enjoyed a lead in the low double digits by the end of the convention, his own strategists expected a dead heat by Labor Day. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Cheney warned ominously that "This campaign will not be easy. Gov. Bush and I expect a real fight. We're ready for it."
Indeed, four nights into the convention, Mr. Cheney was the first speaker to take the fight to the Democrats. "Soon our men and women in uniform will once again have a commander in chief they can respect," he promised in a slap at President Clinton. He contrasted the "stiff dose of truth" offered by Republicans to the "lectures, legalism, and carefully worded denials" of the Democrats. Borrowing a line from Al Gore in 1992, Mr. Cheney referred several times to the current administration, concluding, "It's time for them to go."
For the party faithful gathered in Philadelphia, the attack came none too soon. Following the Cheney speech, Sen. Jeff Sessions
(R-Ala.) praised the tone of the convention, which he said was helping to redefine the GOP in the eyes of voters. But eventually, he admitted, "You've got to bring out your guns. You can't talk nice all the time."
When the time for nice talk is over, conservatives promise they'll be ready to fire with all the passion of years past. They just hope their leaders will remove the trigger locks.