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THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION | Convention Hews to the
Softest of Sells

Laura Bush, Powell Embody New Tack


PHILADELPHIA — Republicans opened their 37th quadrennial convention here Monday with new-found determination to shun the ideological rhetoric of the past and present a gentler, more welcoming face to the nation, with Texas First Lady Laura Bush and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell focusing on education, racial harmony and other issues that transcend traditional party lines.

Speaking softly but wielding what GOP strategists hoped would be a big political stick, Laura Bush delivered a personal hymn to family values, learning and parents involved in their children's lives. Recalling her early experience as a grade school teacher and mother, she said: "We wanted to teach our children what our parents had taught us--that reading is entertaining and interesting and important."

In one of the homey touches that characterized her speech, she said that sometimes, as they read to their twin daughters, her husband, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, would lie on the floor. He and the little girls would act out the nursery stories.

"One of the major reasons George is running for president is to make sure every child in America has that same opportunity," she said.

And, in lines that went to the heart of the Bush campaign message, Mrs. Bush declared that her husband's "core principles will not change with the winds of polls or politics or fame or fortune or misfortune. . . . He shares credit and doesn't cast blame. He sets a tone that's positive and constructive, a tone that is very different from the bitterness and division that too often characterizes Washington, D.C."

Powell, widely respected nationally and the most prominent black leader in the Republican Party, focused on making the GOP more inclusive, saying that Bush as president could "help bridge our racial divides."

But he delivered a challenge to a Republican Party that has not always been enthusiastic about actively helping minorities:

"The party must follow Gov. Bush's lead and reach out to minority communities and particularly the African American community, and not just during an election year.

"My friends, if we're serious about this, it must be a sustained effort. It must be every day. It must be for real," he said, eliciting no more than a polite response from delegates who had cheered Laura Bush enthusiastically.

Tweaking the Party on Special Interests

Powell endorsed other goals more typically associated with Democrats as well--like ensuring that all children have access to health care, something Vice President Al Gore has pledged to achieve but Bush has not. And he chided some Republicans for shading their principles where special interests are involved:

". . . Some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but hardly a whimper is heard from them over affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax codes with preferences for special interests," he said.

Both Powell and Laura Bush hewed close to Monday night's keynote phrase, "Leave No Child Behind," the first of four daily themes designed to burnish Bush's image as a different kind of conservative and build support among moderate and independent voters, who hold the key to victory in November.

To that end, Monday's convention events continued to follow the Bush dictum of avoiding harsh, partisan rhetoric.

Yet Laura Bush drew a tacit contrast with the scandal-plagued Clintons by pledging, as her husband often does on the campaign trail, that he would return the honor and dignity of the presidency.

Moreover, GOP image-makers and at least some independent analysts thought the images broadcast Monday night from Philadelphia could speak louder than words:

The mere appearance of the dignified Powell and the demure Laura Bush overcoming her well-known nervousness to talk about issues, not in the abstract but in terms of her own family, made the point.

"They want to portray Laura Bush as warm and genuine and supportive," said Jack Pitney, who teaches government at Claremont McKenna College, in contrast to "the way the Republican base views Hillary Clinton, as someone cold and power-grabbing."

Mrs. Bush "doesn't have to be eloquent," he said. "She speaks just by being there."

As Monday night's session began, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi unveiled one of this year's TV-friendly innovations: the "rolling roll call." Usually, a full night of a convention is devoted to giving each state a chance to sound off and deliver its delegates to the nominee-in-waiting, usually with a lengthy plug for the home state.

This time, since Gov. Bush's nomination is not in doubt, the roll call will be spread over four nights.

Earlier in the day, the governor continued his triumphal journey toward the City of Brotherly Love with upbeat campaign appearances in Ohio and appreciative remarks beamed onto the convention center's three giant television screens after his wife spoke.

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