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GOP Up-and-Comers Work the Room

Alliances: For those with aspirations of rising through the party ranks, the convention is a mega job fair. The ability to hustle ranks equally with earnest ideals.


PHILADELPHIA — Somewhere at the Republican convention this week, amid all the stage work to make George W. Bush the 43rd president, could be the 46th president of the United States.

Maybe it's Melissa Hart or Tony Garza or Jill Holtzman, each of them brimming with Republican promise and focused enthusiasm.

This political Generation-Next arrived armed with ubiquitous cell phones and convention agendas. But career ambition is also propelling their days. For in the business of politics, the convention is a mega job fair. Earnest ideals about public policy are subsumed by equally earnest hustle.

Pennsylvania candidate for Congress Hart, Texas Railroad Commissioner Garza and fledgling GOP attorney Holtzman, who comes from a tiny town in Virginia, spent the week getting reacquainted with a vast network of GOP friends and forging new alliances. They approached the week with a curious mixture of self-doubt (the kind that comes when medium-sized fish land in an ocean-sized pond) and blazing self-assurance about the trajectory of their brilliant careers.

Ten years ago, when Hart was angling to become the youngest woman ever elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature, the local GOP didn't bother to back her. After all, she was 28, female and challenging a Senate incumbent in a Democratic district. But the Pennsylvanians changed their tune when she crushed her opponent, allowing the party to retain a slim control over the state Senate. Later she became Senate Finance Committee chairwoman, and now her national party is falling over itself to bring her to Washington.

Hart, now 38, was doing just fine on her own at a Monday morning breakfast sponsored by AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby. Hart knew surprisingly little about AIPAC, but she nevertheless held forth on Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, not exactly a hot topic in the western Pennsylvania steel towns she wants to represent in Congress.

After breakfast, her campaign manager escorted her to the convention hall, where she and 28 other House candidates were allotted "60 seconds and not a second more" at midday to speak from the podium. She made the most of it, giving follow-up interviews and hanging in the orbit of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Then it was on to "high tea" with Elizabeth Hanford Dole and other haute Republican women and then back again to the hall for an evening of networking with her delegation. (At the 1996 convention in San Diego, Hart parlayed that kind of kibbitzing into a higher profile in Pennsylvania and support for her legislative efforts.)

"She's got the instinct," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis, a smooth lawmaker from Virginia who runs a candidate school for Republicans eager for a seat in the House.

As he watched Hart--tall, dark-haired and looking the part in her cherry red suit--approach the podium, Davis explained that novice challengers shouldn't leave Philadelphia without $20,000 in new campaign pledges. After one candidate announced she had met that goal at a single event, Davis soberly replied, "Then get $30,000!"

Unlike Hart, Garza, 41, isn't running for higher office this year. He's more like a sleek race car riding in the draft of the car ahead of him. And though he's not exactly sure where the pace car is leading him, he's happy to follow.

What could be better for an up-and-coming politician than to be, like Garza, an advisor and friend to the man who could well be president? Thanks to appointments by Texas Gov. Bush, he is the highest ranking Latino in Texas government, heading the powerful Railroad Commission, which oversees the state's $60-billion oil and gas industry.

Garza left Bush's campaign entourage in Ohio on Sunday night and landed here in the lofty role of insider. As convention secretary, he reads roll-call votes from the podium; he is also giving interviews in Spanish for the campaign and attending intimate meals with the Bush family.

In his blue suit and black ostrich cowboy boots, Garza is also circulating with friends such as Raul Romero, a Houston businessman who introduced him this week to Hector Barreto, a Los Angeles financial services broker who is chairman of the Latin Business Assn. Another new friend is New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

"She's so impressive," he gushed. "There's a realness to her. I can imagine her, like me, just going to the grocery store, doing ordinary things. She's so about the future."

Yet Garza's is the face his party would like to see in its future--bright, modern, Latino, a man who switches easily between English and Spanish whether he's talking about his humble upbringing in Brownsville, where his father owned a filling station, or how the Internet could revolutionize politics.

Garza demurs when asked if he would prefer to join a Bush administration in Washington or stay in Texas to perhaps run for higher office. Quickly, he recalls some advice he received from the man himself:

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