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GOP CONVENTION '96 | FROM THE FLOOR

Kansas Humor and a Hint of Discord

August 13, 1996|BILL BOYARSKY and AMY WALLACE

We spent an evening with the Kansas delegation and finally understood Bob Dole's laconic manner. At a party in a spectacular La Jolla home overlooking the ocean, we struck up a conversation with Gerald Mowry, an alternate delegate from Manhattan, Kan.

We asked what he did for a living. Retired, he said. What did he do before that? Deliveryman. What did he deliver? Babies. We were starting to get the idea: Say only what's necessary, just as Dole does.

Mowry, who has known Dole since 1968, seems to think this is a normal way to talk. Dole, he declared, is "not unreadable. He is the most humorous, funniest person you've ever seen."

Tom Bradley, a state legislator from Topeka, explained that Kansans have learned to be calm in the face of tornadoes, grasshoppers and the like. "They persevere and they don't talk about their hardships and their triumphs," he said. Sometimes, they don't talk at all. But in Kansas, that's OK.

Thanks to our new friends from the Sunflower State, we were able to see the humor in a dry story Dole told at the Ohio delegation's party in Balboa Park.

"We're excited about this convention. And I don't get excited too easily," Dole said. "I told Elizabeth as we were coming in on the boat . . . 'I'm getting excited.' And she said, 'It's about time.' I said, 'All right.' "

*

Despite the efforts of convention bosses to put a peaceful face on this meeting, there is plenty of evidence in the hall of a continuing battle for the soul of the GOP. We saw that in the way some of the party's stars were treated when they stepped onto the convention floor.

Oliver L. North, the defeated Virginia Senate candidate turned radio talk-show host, was surrounded. "Can I have a picture? Please?" asked one breathless woman who clung to his lapels. "Oklahoma loves you!"

Ralph Reed, the boyish head of the Christian Coalition, attracted a similarly adoring crowd that filled the aisle between the Iowa and Virginia delegations. So did Henry J. Hyde, the conservative congressman from Illinois.

"Mr. Hyde," said a young man who approached him earnestly, "God bless you."

But there was also a huddle around a striking blond in an aqua suit. The entire New Jersey delegation applauded when Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, one of the most important players here and a leader in the fight for abortion rights, appeared for the first time. Someone was droning on from the podium. The mannered Whitman put a finger to her lips, shushing her fans.

"I'm expecting Dole and Kemp to make it" to the White House, said Eleanore Nissley, a New Jersey delegate wearing a big abortion-rights button on her lapel. "But if they don't, I expect Christie to do it."

These Republicans represent the party in all its congeniality and contentiousness. You won't hear about the divisions in this week's carefully scripted speeches. But as you push your way across the convention floor, from Puerto Rico to Arizona, and you can't miss the discord.

*

How tight is security here? "Tight with a capital T," said Dave Cohen, a spokesman for the San Diego Police Department. A San Diego police officer was asked for identification Monday, and his squad car was swept for explosives. Even Mayor Susan Golding, who helped bring the convention to town, was stopped on her way into the hall and asked to show I.D.

*

So far, this convention is about as newsy as a college reunion. That's bad for the press, and you can see the frustration. At the Delaware delegation, Nora Muchanic, a reporter for WPVI-TV in Philadelphia, was hard at work interviewing delegates. But about what?

"Oh, I'm asking their reaction to being on the floor," she said, gamely pressing ahead despite the lack of substance. "You know, this is the first time for a lot of them."

We gave Muchanic an A for effort. But the truth is, news crews were often shooting footage of each other Monday.

Still, although we know everybody knocks them as outdated and boring, there's nothing like a political convention. Where else can you see Americans lined up state by state, wearing their pride on their sleeves? The Hawaiians wear leis. The Texans? Neckties emblazoned with tiny logos of the Lone Star State. Every delegation has a different look, a different story and a different set of problems facing them back home.

That's difficult to capture in a sound bite.

*

That said, these folks really do know how to get on TV. Here's a guide, compiled from observations of the delegates: Carry a baby. Carry two. Clap your hands uncontrollably. Cry. Affix more than 100 souvenir pins to your suspenders. Sit with the Kansas delegation. Stand near CNN's Wolf Blitzer or CBS's Ed Bradley. Put something silly on your head.

Monday's best headgear: Tennessee delegate David Ashley Jr., 18, who donned a floppy red-and-white chapeau straight out of Dr. Seuss' "Cat in the Hat."

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