Republican National Convention
Tuesday, August 01, 2000

GOP show its softer side




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        PHILADELPHIA -- Remember those Sears ads? The “softer side of Sears.” Silk blouses. Scarves. Tablecloths. Catchy. Nice music. Consistent message. It feels a lot like that here.

        No anti-Gore signs on the floor of the convention within camera range. Not a discouraging word is heard. In fact, you have to scrounge around a little to find them anywhere. Oh, anti-Hillary buttons are fairly common. And you can find a little bite amid the Bush-Cheney lovefest. My personal favorite is “Nixon 2000. He's not as stiff as Gore.”

        No buttons that say so, but the message is “Republicans 2000. They're not as mean as you've heard.” The buzz words are “core values” and “inclusion.” And everybody stays “on message.” Over and over again.

        But just as you know that Sears has made its reputation on socket wrenches and lawn mowers, sooner or later somebody was going to trot out the harder side of the GOP. Former drug czar Bill Bennett spoke to Ohio's delegation Tuesday morning.

        “I don't think I'm a fanatic, but I don't believe presidents oughta be felons.”

        There. Somebody said it. The room seemed to take a deep breath.

        “People want to take a bath” after this administration, he continued. Laughter. Applause.

        “We've lowered our expectations for the past eight years. Gov. George W. Bush is somebody we can look at up to. We're not looking down. Feels good, doesn't it?”

        More applause.

        And the mood is genuinely happy. Almost giddy. I ran into Governor Bob Taft's press secretary in the elevator.

        “He's jazzed. He's got his groove.”

        Jazzed? Groove? Bob?

        Maybe he caught it from the candidate. “I have never seen him so fired up,” said Ohio's treasurer Joe Deters, who was with Gov. Bush in Blue Ash this week. “He means what he says. I've seen him working those rope lines. People show him photos of their kids. He feels like he has promised them something better. He means it. I know he does.”

        Second District Congressman Steve Chabot stood in the back of the room while Mr. Bennett spoke. “We're not mean-spirited,” he said. “The party is just trying to present itself as what it really is. Trying to reach new people.”

        And, one wonders, what about the old people?

        “I've been a Republican all my life,” Joe Wheeler of St. Bernard says. “I still believe in the same things I always did. Less government, letting people take care of themselves. But you don't let anybody go hungry.”

        A school board member and honorary delegate to the convention - he pays $500 to the party and all his own expenses - Joe says, “I'm one of those rich Republicans you hear about.”

        He laughs. Thinks about it and laughs again.

        He has an asphalt sealing company. “I'm the owner, CEO and the worker.”

        George Stephanopoulos said on ABC's This Week that he spoke with a senior Bush operative “assigned to go through all the speeches from the podium, to make sure that there aren't any excessively harsh attacks on Democrats. This is going to be a kinder and gentler convention.”

        Not that this softer side is not sincerely soft. Sears really has something besides Craftsman tools and washing machines. As their faithful customers already knew. But they were trying to bring some new people into the store.

        Laura Pulfer is a Metro columnist.

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