Hide and Seek

by Michelle Cottle | July 31, 2000

In case you missed it, July 19 was National Paint-a-Poster Day. Sponsored by the 2000 Republican National Convention, PAP Day, as those in the know call it, was pretty much what the name suggests. With the Philadelphia gathering less than two weeks away, the GOP was encouraging the faithful to " bring yourself, your friends, and your party pride!" and help ensure that, come convention time, there would be plenty of colorful, homemade displays of love and support for Texas Governor George W. Bush. "The BIGGER the crowd," the invitation promised, "the BIGGER the fun!"

If only the same could be said about the conventions themselves. As the two teams labor to generate excitement for their four-day summer pep rallies--rolling out details on themes, speakers, and schedules in carefully packaged nuggets--even many creatures of the Beltway expect the gatherings to be one giant, hyper-orchestrated yawn. Going in, chuckles Republican strategist Rich Galen, there's "an expectation of eye-rolling boredom."

Except ... there is always the chance that, despite the best-laid plans, the candidates themselves could provide some genuine spontaneity--by screwing everything up. And, since Bush and Vice President Al Gore have their own unique sets of flaws, the two parties have diametrically opposite convention nightmares. The Gore folks worry that their charismatically challenged candidate will get lost in the convention hubbub, thus cementing his image as a nonleader. The Bush team frets that its star, with his boatloads of charm and little else, will reveal too much of himself and convince voters there's no there there. Much of the glitz you see at the conventions, then, will be a high-tech diversion meant to hide the nominees' weaknesses. The main difference is that the Democrats will try to hide Gore's blemishes by focusing the spotlight on him, with no unflattering contrasts, while the Republicans will try to hide Bush's by just, well, hiding him.

For weeks now the GOP has been boasting that it will put on "a different kind of convention for a different kind of Republican." And it will: the Republicans are going to keep their candidate as far from the action as possible. "The focus is policy," says Bush flack Ari Fleischer. "Our goal is to highlight and showcase Governor Bush's policies and his philosophy--and let people get a little glance at him himself." To wit, on the Friday before the convention's Monday start, George W. will set out from Austin on a cross--country jaunt toward Philly, stopping in a half-dozen battleground states en route. He won't arrive at the convention until the next to last day; his mug will simply be beamed in via satellite from points along the way. Although Bill Clinton pulled a similar stunt for the 1996 Democratic convention, wending his way from West Virginia to Chicago on an Amtrak-powered whistle-stop tour, he was already a well-known incumbent seeking to inject his second convention with a little pizzazz. But George W.'s showing up late serves a different purpose; he already has the pizzazz--it's the well-known part he has to worry about. Each day, Bush's televised image will drop into the convention, utter a few lines about the policy theme of the day, and then drop back out, leaving the details (never W.'s strong suit) to a supporting cast. (Laura Bush will speak on education, Condoleezza Rice will talk foreign policy, and so on.)

In fact, the real stars of the Republican roundup will be W.'s surrogates--"an irresistible mix of politicians, celebrities, and regular people," as The Washington Post put it. As currently planned, the convention seems little more than a four-day photo-op featuring a rotating cast of minorities and women. In addition to party luminaries like Rice, Elizabeth Dole, and Colin Powell, viewers will meet such nonentities as Paul Harris, a state legislator from Virginia who just happens to be black. This Benetton-ad-style roster will show what an enlightened, tolerant guy Bush is without him having to say a word. So eager are Republicans to display Bush's "different" image that George W. and party maverick Senator John McCain are the only two white guys on the announced speakers' lineup thus far--an inclusive but not particularly representative slice of the Grand Old Party.

Alas, W. has to show up in Philadelphia eventually, and some Republicans are already a bit anxious about his Thursday-night acceptance speech. "When George Bush is talking off-the-cuff, he sounds relaxed, confident, knowledgeable," says Dan Schnur, former communications director for McCain's presidential run. "But, when he's reading beautifully done speeches, he doesn't sound like himself." This, in turn, might raise questions about whether W. believes in (or even understands) what he's reading off the teleprompters. "I don't think the candidate is likely to make very many mistakes," says Galen. Of course, Galen adds, "he's not likely to be there much."

By contrast, if the vice president's team gets its way, the Democratic convention will be "The Al Gore Show." From the post-primary moment that George W. began overtaking the veep in the polls, Gore's people have been saying: Just wait until the conventions. All vice presidents, they say, look like the national beta male--an image, they assure us, that Gore will neatly dispel in Los Angeles.

To do so, Gore's handlers must make sure the national alpha male--and his wife--don't steal their man's thunder. Already there have been tense (occasionally public) "negotiations" about how high the First Senate Candidate's profile will be. Early on, Team Hillary said she should take part in the Tuesday-night parade of female candidates; now that display is scheduled for Monday night, and she and President Clinton have both agreed to appear then. The hope is that the first couple will do their thing and then promptly clear out. (Clinton and Gore will meet briefly on Tuesday for a symbolic, off-site torch-passing a la Ronald Reagan to Bush pere in 1988.) Otherwise, there's always the danger that one or both Clintons will overshadow Gore. After all, as one White House operative notes, the convention will be packed with "the hardest of hard-core Democratic political people," many of whom remain gaga over the president. "But that's not where the game is this year, and there needs to be more discipline about not fawning all over Clinton."

If there's to be any fawning, the Gore people want to make damn sure it's over the vice president. At this point, it remains unclear where the candidate himself will spend the first couple of convention days, but the entire event will likely be set up as Gore's coming-out party, with a focus on the personal rather than the issues. "The convention process is really one of the moments in a campaign when a candidate begins breaking out of the vice presidency," says Gore spinmeister Chris Lehane. During the Los Angeles love-in, Lehane promises, people will learn all about Gore's "history and experiences. The fact that he grew up in two places--a farm in Tennessee and in Washington, D.C.--the fact that he volunteered in Vietnam, that he came back from Vietnam very disillusioned and spent seven years as a newspaper reporter, that he eventually went back into public policy as a result of what he saw as a reporter."

And if that's not enough, Team Gore is expected to whip out a biographical video along the lines of the now-legendary "Man From Hope" that did so much to flesh out Clinton's persona in 1992. Democrats will also make use of the perkier, more mediagenic members of the Gore family. "Everybody in America who I talk to says, 'You gotta get Tipper out there,'" says the White House operative. "She's out there! But the press won't cover her because they don't see the events she does as newsworthy. Well, here's the opportunity to get her out there, and they gotta look at her. She's a big asset, so look for her to be used very prominently."

Most significantly, there's the acceptance speech. Like Bush's, Gore's big oration sparks anxiety among his backers. "Part of me worries that he'll get up there and say, 'Now, if you'll all turn to Chapter Eighteen,'" says former Clinton adviser Paul Begala. Complicating matters, at the convention Gore cannot (or at least should not) fall back on the attack mode in which he is most comfortable. "Gore is great at giving the red-meat political speech to the faithful that includes lots of pops on Republicans," says one Democratic player. "He's not stiff when he's doing that. He's not boring. But it's not presidential. It's not how he'll demonstrate leadership to swing voters. Gore has not yet acquired the ability to give a forward-looking, vision-oriented, positive-message speech."

All told, Gore is facing the more daunting task. At conventions, candidates are meant to be telegenic, zippy, and superficial--all of which plays to Bush's strengths. But the political gods are fair, and W. too will face his moment in the pressure cooker: the debates. While Bush doesn't have much riding on his convention performance, observers say, the debates are when he will have to deal with all those worries about his smarts and gravitas. It's a safe bet that the vice president can't wait until the conventions are over so he can go mano a mano with W. on live television. Possible Gore slogan for the events: "The BIGGER the crowd, the BIGGER the fun!"

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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