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Jewish World Review August 2, 2000 /1 Menachem-Av, 5760

Tony Snow

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What the GOPers have finally discovered -- PHILADELPHIA | The moment Republicans began piling into the City of Brotherly Love Sunday evening, a wet wind oozed over the banks of the Delaware River and the swamps south of town, transforming what had been a crisp, invigorating breeze into the equivalent of a Divine Belch.

Dun-colored clouds swirled and stirred in stagnant loops, pushing the mercury inexorably toward the 90-degree mark. The streets' very pavement seemed to wilt.

Delegates to the Republican National Convention felt as if they had woken up inside someone's mouth. And yet they accepted their fates gamely. They gathered outside hotels and on crowded sidewalks, dressed more for April than August. Rivulets of perspiration streamed over their noses and down their backs. In a polite but unspoken compact, folks pretended not to notice shirts pasted to chests and hair bunched in lumps against sweating necks.

Instead, they smiled and exchanged handshakes. They squinted at the name tags on old friends' lapels.

But that was mild compared to gush that accosted delegates the moment they approached the sporadically air-conditioned confines of the First Union Center.

Large billowing posters outside the arena proclaimed the convention's official theme: "Renewing America's Purpose: Together." This is an arresting phrase. Its words trip happily off the tongue. Each feels as cozy as an old sock. Yet, spoken consecutively, they defy interpretation.

What does it mean to "renew" a "purpose"? One renews a vow, a driver's license or a subscription. But a purpose? How do you renew a purpose? And when, where and with whom shall this renewal transpire? In a house, with a mouse, in a car -- or a hot tub, or Las Vegas altar? The slogan is packed with evocation but devoid of content. It's the sort of thing that happens when ad men get their teeth into something.

And it is a harbinger. The Party of Lincoln has resolved this week to mount a Smarm Offensive, and it has enlisted every man, woman and child interested in advancing the vision and candidacy of George W. Bush.

On any given evening, delegates entering the arena find on their seats hand-painted slabs of poster board. The placards rest in heaps on the seats, like debris: Teachers for Bush! Californians for Bush! We can! W! Partisans also receive bright tin confetti and streamers to hurl into the air, on cue.

There is an exuberant defensiveness to this years quadrennial Republican conclave. Party elders seem to have concluded that Bill Clinton was right all along about the GOP -- that the party in recent years has harbored at least vestigial taints of racism, chauvinism and misogyny. In response, Republicans have declared a pox on grown white males -- except the nominees, of course. One looks almost in vain for such people to appear on stage.

It's like racial-profiling in reverse: When Caucasian guys appear, it is almost always under watchful escort from a person of a different sex or hue.

Surprisingly, the white males don't seem to mind much. They are more desperate for victory than dignity. So when Colin Powell hit them with a bastinado over their traditional opposition to affirmative action, they stood and applauded rapturously. When he recited nominally Democratic slogans about "guaranteed, quality health care" for kids and greater spending on teachers and books, they ululated and waved large rubbery noodles.

After years in the political hinterlands, Republicans finally have discovered they can't win elections without appealing to hearts and they can't woo undecided voters unless they put forward a face that looks like a cola commercial -- filled with men and women, whites, blacks, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, you name it.

In other words, they have repudiated Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy," which wrote off black voters in a quest to turn the Solid South into a Republican redoubt. While that strategy worked for Nixon, it cost the GOP dearly in the long run. Racial separatism may have enjoyed a quiet vogue as recently as the '70s, but no more -- and Powell was on the mark when he warned that Republicans have a long way to go before they assemble a credible and durable Rainbow Coalition of their own.

The next move falls to George W. Bush. He not only must pursue Powell-esque outreach; he also needs to push aside convention-hall cant and translate the smile-button alliteration of "compassionate conservatism" into something not merely concrete -- he has developed the policy blueprint -- but easy to grasp and understand.

For once the deafening cheers of the convention hall have faded into memory, Republicans will face a simple and recurring question: Nice package, but what's inside?

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate