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GOP CONVENTION '96

As Emcee, Gingrich Works to Straddle Public Relations Gap

Speaker: He's conservatives' darling but disliked at large. He's spending less time on the podium but he's hardly keeping a low profile.

August 13, 1996|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — At a time when Republicans are trying to broaden their audience by giving prime-time convention display to moderates like Colin L. Powell, they find themselves caught in a double bind as the master of ceremonies takes his place at the podium this evening.

The chairman of the convention--the man who is presiding officer of the televised extravaganza--is one of the most unpopular politicians in America: House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Yet Gingrich is a darling of the party's conservative core--the kind of people who are packing the floor of the San Diego Convention Center.

To straddle that public relations gap, Gingrich is spending less time on the podium before television cameras and more time revving up party loyalists for a presidential campaign that has left many demoralized.

"There has, without a doubt, been an effort to figure out how to capitalize on his strengths without adding to the burden that many must carry because of the negatives he carries," said GOP political consultant Eddie Mahe.

Gingrich is expected to give a brief speech tonight and otherwise spend relatively little time presiding over the convention. But anyone who thinks that means he is keeping a low profile might as well wish for water to flow uphill. The media are attracted to Gingrich like moths to a flame--and vice versa.

Gingrich arrived in California a week before the convention started, ready for the limelight. Sporting a fresh haircut and a smart new Brooks Brothers suit, he gave the introduction to Dole's presentation before the platform committee last Tuesday. He testified before the platform committee himself the next day. He did some photogenic volunteer work in San Diego for Habitat for Humanity, a group that builds and renovates housing for the poor. He rode the California Republican Party's "Victory Train" from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. His schedule is packed with appearances at party functions and he is meeting with reporters almost every morning during convention week to help deliver the party's message of the day.

Gingrich aides and convention officials brushed off suggestions that party leaders are trying to keep the speaker under wraps--even if it were possible.

"We are not running away from Speaker Gingrich," Paul Manafort, Dole's convention manager, told reporters days before the convention.

"If you wanted to hide Gingrich, you'd tell him: 'Don't show up until Tuesday afternoon,' " just before his speech, said Rich Galen, a Gingrich spokesman. Instead, he said, no one discouraged Gingrich from planning a "highly visible" arrival a week in advance.

But despite his renowned verbosity, Gingrich readily accepted Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour's dictum to keep all convention floor speeches short. "I was the first to volunteer to give a very short speech," Gingrich said at a breakfast with reporters here Sunday. "I'm going to do whatever Haley asks me to do. I'm just a part of the team."

Deploying Gingrich to the party's political advantage is a challenge because the convention has two audiences: the party faithful, mostly inside the convention hall, and the electorate at large--especially swing voters--who may be watching on television.

Among conservative activists, Gingrich is a hero, the spiritual leader of the GOP revolution that gave the party control of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. But with much of the rest of the world, he's the personification of the excesses of that revolution. Gingrich's disapproval ratings are on the decline from their vertiginous heights of earlier this year, but recent polls still find that only about 25% have a favorable impression of him.

The party faithful gave him a hero's welcome Sunday--a standing ovation complete with chants of "Newt! Newt! Newt!"--when he arrived to speak to GOPAC, a political action committee he once headed.

"Newt knows how much we love him," said Gay Hart Gaines, chairman of GOPAC, as she introduced Gingrich to a crowd thick with people who would like to see more, not less, of him.

"We shouldn't be afraid to have him more prominent," said Toni Hellon, a delegate to the convention from Arizona. "But they deemed it important that he take a lesser role."

"I would like to see him more highly profiled," said Larry Bigham, a Republican House candidate from South Carolina. "We need to remember we got here with Newt Gingrich."

Gingrich's biggest opportunity to address the broader electorate will come about 6:30 tonight. That's when he will step up to the podium and deliver a speech to the convention about the importance of voluntarism. Although it will last no more than seven minutes, many Republicans hope it will provide the kind of big-picture, inspirational rhetoric that is not Dole's strong suit.

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