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They've Come to See the Elephant in a Kinder, Gentler Mood

Scene: No one's spiked the punch with mean spirits at this quadrennial party. The only real display of fire seems to be in the San Diego sunsets.


SAN DIEGO — For the thousands of Republicans here, the $28-million, star-spangled GOP convention is part high school reunion, part gala celebrity. And only to the dull at heart does the certainty of Bob Dole's nomination denude the days of drama and excitement.

Ask Judy Rosenstrich, a delegate from Vermont, what she thinks of her first convention, and she'll tell you: "It's a thrill and privilege. I campaigned hard in Vermont to get this position and I paid my own way to get here and I'm sharing a room.

"The way I see it, even though it's all scripted, this makes me part of the democratic process and my job is to take the enthusiasm generated by the convention home and spread that message in Vermont." Or ask Diermer True, a Wyoming rancher, if the whole gathering doesn't represent an ultimate exercise in futility and he'll say: "I absolutely believe we're going to have a new president in November. As soon as the voters find out who Dole is, they're going to know he's the right man for America."

But haven't voters already had time to get to know Dole during his 35 years in Washington?

"Not really," True said. "I was in the Wyoming Legislature for about 20 years and we did a little polling and basically no one had heard of me. So Dole'll need between now and November to get his message out on TV."

True and the rest of the Wyoming delegation was standing on the balcony of a seaside La Jolla condo. Its host at the welcoming party, John Baldwin, wearing sneakers and a Hawaiian sports shirt, was introduced as a developer of mobile home properties and a personal friend of Mother Teresa. He made a few remarks about Buffalo Bill and said: "I'll keep this short because we're about to have a beautiful sunset I want you to see."

Home was another world away, rancher John DeGering thought as he watched the Pacific horizon streak with orange. A mariachi band played. DeGering tapped his cowboy boot in rhythm. The surf pounded onto the beach below. The forecast, 365 days a year, it seemed, was 72 and sunny. Not the kind of climate that tested a man's mettle.

"A nice place to visit," DeGering said, "but I wouldn't want to stay. I want my hills and trees. And I'd miss the winters."

After the mean-spirited GOP convention of 1992, this gathering feels like a kinder, gentler affair, mellow as the San Diego weather, with dissidents banished to the non-prime-time closet and protest groups exiled to a small, fenced-in parking lot, where each group is allotted 55 minutes and not a second more.

True, there is an AIDS activist walking around disguised as a 6-foot-high condom. And the antiabortion forces are here, carrying huge, truly repulsive photographs. But generally speaking, the Rev. Billy Joe Clegg of Biloxi, Miss., who has been running for president every election since 1972, says that he rather misses all the protesters, eccentrics and flat-out wackos who are usually attracted to a convention.

"Not much electricity here," noted the lay minister, pacing on Front Street and already planning his campaign for the year 2000. He said that he finished 11th in the New Hampshire GOP primaries and beat Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana by 100 votes in Mississippi without spending a dime. "That means if I had money, I'd be president."

A policeman approached to move Clegg along and both the cop and the candidate addressed each other as "sir."

"Such a courteous, civilized place I've never seen," Clegg said, and few would deny that San Diego--a city anxious to escape from the shadow of Los Angeles and earn national recognition on its own merit--has done a flawless job of coping with the demands of thousands of Republicans and journalists.

Indeed, everyone from the cops to the cabbies is so polite that one has the feeling the whole city just graduated from charm school. Street crews scurry in to sweep up discarded cigarette butts before they hit the deck and from the Horton Sports Bar--where the Newt Ice Breaker (vodka and peach schnapps) is a hot seller--to the renamed Grand Old Party Bar and Grill on 5th Street, everything in San Diego, the nation's sixth-largest city, conveys a message of welcome.

"San Diegans hate being perceived as Los Angeles' country cousins," said Larry Lucchino, president of the San Diego Padres (who lead the Dodgers in the standings). "So in a way, hosting this convention and doing it well represents a kind of coming of age--a way to hold up our city to national inspection and disclose our secret: This is a wonderful, important city."

Meanwhile, from the shoulder-to-shoulder hotel lobbies to the teeming floor of the harbor-side convention center, from Sea World to Planet Hollywood, all San Diego is abuzz as the place where today's political luminaries and yesterday's faded stars have converged in a blur of red, white and blue bunting. For these brief four days, there is no such thing as the indignity of true obscurity.

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