Two GOP conventions
8/3/2000 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
PHILADELPHIA -- During Tuesday night's choreographed patriotism and nostalgia at the Republican National Convention, New York Republican Chairman William Powers triggered authentic emotion. While announcing his state's presidential vote tally, he called Rep. Rick Lazio "the next senator from New York." Delegates from Montana, Alabama and elsewhere were on their feet, shouting and shaking their fists.
Few joining in the sustained cheering could pick Lazio out of a crowd, but they know -- and abhor -- his opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton. These delegates are unified by their contempt for President Clinton and his wife, and they surely are a little frustrated by a convention where the president's name is never uttered. Mentioning Mrs. Clinton's opponent not only released pent-up emotion but provided a taste of the "other" convention in Philadelphia.
There are indeed two Republican conventions here. The regular convention avoids the controversy and confrontation of past gatherings that have cost the GOP dearly in November. There is nearly unanimous agreement among the delegates that Gov. George W. Bush's stage-management is correct. "This is the way we have to do it," said Rep. Joe Scarborough of Florida, one of the most contentious members of the contentious House Class of '94. But the hearts of Scarborough and many others are found in a second Republican convention gathered in multiple sites.
One was at Philadelphia's Union League Club, where businessmen Tuesday heard key party figures dispense the kind of partisan oratory normally heard in the real convention. A similar event was held the same day by the Christian Coalition, where nearly 3,000 heard more conservative oratory from prominent Republicans.
Christian Coalition president Pat Robertson, a featured Republican convention speaker in years past, was kept off the podium this time (and not happy about it). Bush managers were careful to keep combative conservatives off the program. That included Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, who felt he was not wanted here and decided not to come to Philadelphia. He was talked into changing his mind and in Philadelphia Monday was given a plaque from the right-wing Citizens United organization honoring his continuous investigation of Clinton scandals.
What was heard at these unofficial venues only occasionally intruded on the soft and gentle mood of the convention. House Speaker Dennis Hastert seemed from a different world when he challenged Clinton's promised veto of the marriage penalty repeal. Although the GOP is the pro-life party with opposition to abortion enshrined in its platform, the only mention of the subject was a call to protect the unborn in the benediction closing Tuesday night's session by Father Vincent Bomarito.
The self-styled "New Republican Party" in truth does not fit the real inclinations of overwhelmingly conservative delegates, but they have responded with a smile masking any frustration with iron discipline. A rare and small exception was the "silent prayer protest" by several members of the Texas delegation, over the selection of openly gay Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona to deliver a four-minute speech on international trade.
Gen. Colin Powell, delivering what would have been called the keynote speech in a traditional convention, was actually cheered for his scolding of the GOP on the race issue. In fact, many delegates were distressed by the general's Republican-bashing . But all are thrilled to have him on the Bush team addressing these grass-roots conservatives as my "fellow Republicans." Powell was prudent enough this time not to repeat his provocative 1996 call for abortion rights. But even if he had, it is doubtful that he would have been booed as he was in San Diego four years ago.
The delegates here will accept virtually anything to prevent Al Gore from continuing the Clinton ascendancy. But some mainstream Republicans wonder whether they are going in the right direction. Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a finalist in the vice-presidential selection, worries about instructions from Austin not to respond in kind when the Democrats act.
"We cannot give up our principles," said Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee, a thoughtful member of the Class of '94 who has defied his party leadership on the campaign finance issue. That fear tempers the buoyancy of the first truly optimistic GOP convention in 16 years.