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They're Ready for Action

Protests: It seems as if every group with a burning issue has come to the GOP convention. And even in this media-saturated town, they're fighting to make sure they're heard.


SAN DIEGO — It is an industry like every other. Here they are: fat corporations, mid-size concerns, consortia and independent operators, all pleading for a piece of the ultimate pie--national media attention--in this politics-saturated town.

They are the protesters: the immigrants' rights groups, the border defenders, the fighters for reproductive choice, the soldiers for the unborn, the affirmative action adherents, the handgun haters, the human rights advocates who seem to have invented a new word to cover their constituency: gaylesbianbisexualandtransgender.

San Diego attorney Brian Monaghan, a Democrat, spent $3,000 for a single billboard on well-traveled Front Street: "Republicans: Protecting the children's right to own assault weapons." And someone else rented a plane to fly this banner over the huge, harbor front media party on Saturday night: "GOP = Enrich the Rich."

Among the well-funded protesters are groups such as People for the American Way, which was given office space in a downtown high-rise by a Republican businessman who used to head San Diego's Planned Parenthood. Each day, the liberal group, founded by Norman Lear, issues a slick bulletin called "Right Wing Convention Watch." And, it expects to spend about $30,000 in its efforts to keep reporters up-to-date on the influence of the Christian right on the Republican party.

The group has also resorted to subterfuge, sneaking a wired operative into a Christian Coalition meeting to tape Ralph Reed's remarks to his fellow believers. (The infiltrator was ejected after a few minutes, but not before getting enough to generate yet another press release.)

A coalition of groups representing the interests of gay men and lesbians (and yes, bisexuals and transgenders) has let space in the ground floor of a building in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter. The center holds daily news conferences in a cavernous performance-art space, issues flurries of releases and is home base to one of the protest industry's more attention-getting mascots, Condom Man, a 7-foot-tall walking, talking rebuke of the Republican Party's failure to mention AIDS in its platform.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich's half sister, Candace, a lesbian who has become an outspoken critic of her brother on gay issues, is in town as well and cannot seem to walk more than a few steps without being stopped by a reporter.

The Lesbian and Gay Media Center is half a block from the officially designated two-acre protest site. "Protest site?" Candace Gingrich said with a laugh. "You mean the concentration camp?"

Indeed, the site, which San Diego police call "Speaker's Corner," is an odd, almost surreal sort of encampment. It's on blacktop, a set of train tracks removed from the Convention Center. The area is surrounded by a 10-foot cyclone fence and offers groups that registered months ago with police exactly 55 minutes at a rickety podium with a feeble sound system. The timing is administered with two specially installed traffic lights that face the crowd. The microphones are on when the lights are green. Yellow is a five-minute warning and, when the lights turn red, the mikes go dead.

One is tempted to say the space is in the shadow of the center, but there are no shadows; virtually no shade. The site is so inhospitable that a person with paranoid tendencies might be tempted to wonder if that wasn't the convention organizers' plan.

Protests so far have ranged from the poignant to the picayune. A pro-gun control group included the relatives of men, women and children slain by weapons, from handguns to assault rifles. Talk show host Morton Downey Jr., who lost part of a lung to cancer, arrived with an entourage of folks dressed as cigarettes on behalf of the American Lung Assn.

A woman dressed as a witch, calling herself "Samantha," took the stage to denounce ultra-conservative San Diego County Assemblyman Steve Baldwin, who once, while discussing declining social morals, said, "We now have official state witches in certain states."

She was interrupted by the arrival of a celebrity MTV reporter: rapper Chuck D, of Public Enemy. Some protesters were furious that their thunder was being stolen by a reporter. But what can you expect at a convention where reporters and photographers clearly outnumber politicians, delegates and protesters--combined.

Whatever you think of the raging abortion debate, this much must be said of members of the virulently antiabortion group Operation Rescue: They understand their constitutional rights. They shunned the nearly hidden official protest site on Monday and gathered, perhaps 100 or so strong, in a small public park opposite the Convention Center, in direct line of sight of arriving delegates and reporters on Monday.

"They have the right to free speech . . . as long as there is no violence," said San Diego police spokeswoman Diane Sadlier. "Since they were in a public place, they were free to demonstrate."

This is information, however, that the cops might prefer be kept classified.

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