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GOP CONVENTION '96 | FROM THE FLOOR

Kansan Enjoys Her Moment in San Diego Sun

August 16, 1996|BILL BOYARSKY and AMY WALLACE

Late Thursday, we walked over to the convention hall for the last time, through the metal detectors, out of the steamy San Diego afternoon heat and into the belly of the Republican Party. We wanted to talk to delegates. After four days under the big tent, we wondered what they thought it all meant.

Some were serious. "The convention established for sure that the Republican Party is broad and based on diversity," Texan Geoff Connor said. "Prior to the convention we were drifting to the right. We didn't have a base any more."

Others were simply giddy; all were having a great time. Vonda Wiedmer was carrying a sign that advertised: "Interviews with mainstream, ordinary, common Kansas delegate--$10." The homemaker from tiny Madison (pop. 800) said her week in San Diego had been a gas because she and Bob Dole come from the same state.

"You have no idea what it's like to be a Kansas delegate here--I've had people with cameras try to follow me into the toilet," she said, acknowledging that her celebrity would be brief. "It's funny to be famous all of a sudden. But tomorrow morning, it's just me."

*

Just hours after Elizabeth Hanford Dole's speech, we got an idea of how she was changing her husband's image. We ran into a bunch of Hawaiian delegates who said that Liddy had helped them see the grim-faced Kansan in a whole new light.

Penny Dickhens, a travel industry wholesaler from the Big Island, said Elizabeth's speech made her husband seem like "a warm and fuzzy kind of guy." It occurred to us that such a description might make Dole gag.

Everyone here was starting to think about what the Democrats will do at their convention later this month. The Hawaiians said Elizabeth Dole's charming, off-the-cuff performance--which they described as full of aloha--would be a hard act to follow for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is known more for policy than personality.

"It's going to be tough for the Democrats," said Gene Ward, a state legislator from Honolulu. "If they put Hillary out front, it's going to raise the health care issue. If they don't, she'll be hiding--not up to snuff with Elizabeth Dole."

*

Over at the official protest area, about 50 men and women--10 of them from the media--stood in a ragged semicircle around the speaker's stand. We're sorry, but the demonstrations here have been kind of lame. It's not completely the protesters' fault. Their venue, a parking lot ringed by a chain-link fence, is not even visible from the convention hall. But nevertheless, it is a magnet for anyone who wants attention.

On Thursday, Dan Duy Hoang, legislative director of the Vietnamese Political Action Committee, was upbeat despite the small turnout at his rally. He said a congressman and a national committee member showed up and heard the group's demands, which include strong support of legal immigrants.

Hoang also told us that, like Jack Kemp, he opposes Proposition 187, the measure that seeks to deny state benefits to illegal immigrants. We wondered if he was talking about the old Kemp or the new Kemp, reminding him that the vice presidential nominee had flip-flopped on the issue just this week. What switch, he asked. "I don't think Jack Kemp has changed."

*

Kent Steffes, who won a gold medal in beach volleyball at the Atlanta Olympics, has taken several star turns here. Who would have suspected that the athletic champion--a Wall Street Journal-reading conservative--would spark controversy?

Everything went fine as long as Steffes stuck to his sport, playing an exhibition game at a delegation party. But then, House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia brought Steffes with him up to the convention podium and asserted that the rise of Steffes' sport demonstrates the strength of Republican free-market values.

The conservative Weekly Standard magazine was appalled. "No More Beach Volleyball, Please," said the lead editorial in its daily convention edition, which called the Gingrich speech "the worst and most embarrassing of his career."

*

Best Republican loot: The Clinton Patch. When affixed to the skin, the patch claims to protect us against "the liberal nightmare we are experiencing." Each patch lasts four years. . . . And then, from Political Comics, "The Adventures of Liberal Man," featuring a super hero with a bleeding heart and a mouth that only utters politically correct speech . . . Whitewater's Most Wanted Poster, featuring 46 mug shots (plus a portrait of the First Couple).

*

James Carville, the eccentric strategist who helped Clinton win the presidency, stepped into the lobby of the Marriott Hotel next to the convention center and was swarmed by surprisingly friendly Republicans.

"I love your wife," one woman told him warmly, referring to Mary Matalin, the GOP campaign veteran. A man handed Carville, who is here as a commentator for CNN, a button that read "Character is the Issue."

"It's for Mary," he said. "I know you don't want it."

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