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Call In Powell

Showcasing a Benetton ad's worth of moderate conservatives, Bush has embarked on a journey to the center. Will the right stay quiet for the ride?

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For the first hour, the party for the New York State media sponsored by Bloomberg and hosted by Governor George Pataki at a wood-paneled Philadelphia restaurant on the night before the opening of the Republican National Convention was a standard insider schmoozefest: twisting to avoid sticking your elbow in John McLaughlin's drink, watching George Stephanopoulos attempt to grab a couple of bites from the buffet while women begged him to pose for pictures, plenty of feigned-friendly handshakes between Pataki and reporters.

Then Colin Powell walked in. Celebrity gravity propelled him through the clotted crowd and directly into the center of the room. David Gergen, U.S. News editor and a man of nimble political allegiances, dropped his conversation in mid-sentence to intercept the former general, and was quickly joined by ABC's John Cochran and Bruce Shapiro, a writer from The Nation. And me. Raising his voice to be heard over the jazz trio while remaining assuredly soft-spoken, Powell joked about how every head in the room turned to see his son, Michael, who lingered quietly a step behind him.

Powell dove right into the reasons for his growing comfort with George W. Bush. Agreement on military issues helped, as did the prospect of a job in W's Cabinet. But asked whether he really believes there's any new fabric in the GOP's much-rhetoricized big tent, Powell was even more blunt than he'd be on national television 24 hours later. "A supporter of affirmative action, a man who has always believed in a woman's right to control her own body?" Powell scoffed. "A few years ago, the Republicans didn't want me!"

Many still don't, at least as anything more than an electoral weapon or an obedient Cabinet secretary. On the convention floor, to the right of the stage in the South Carolina delegation, Powell's scolding speech drew polite applause; it provoked nowhere near the frenzy of Newt Gingrich's Tuesday-night visit to the adjoining Georgia delegation. Jenny Costa, a sunny-faced 20-year-old delegate from Charleston, politely praised Powell's "different ideas," not for the ideas themselves but for the way they advertised the new Republican tolerance. Like many other delegates who also seemed to have received the same memo, Costa pointed out -- correctly -- that such bold dissent wouldn't be allowed in prime time at the upcoming Democratic convention. Still, the speaker she really wanted to hear on the Philadelphia stage was Alan Keyes. "He's the kind of ultraconservative role model that we're trying to get across to minority voters," Costa said brightly. "A man who stands for personal responsibility. I'm disappointed he won't be here."

If political drama is defined as stirring oratory or open fighting about platform planks, the 2000 Republican convention was a complete dud. Not even the sight of an Oklahoma congressman "rocking out" on electric guitar could redeem this spectacle as entertainment. But there was plenty of theater beyond camera range.

"What happens when you move to the middle is, you don't lose your core votes, but you lose your conservative activism. They sit on their hands, they don't turn out their friends. It can lose you an election."

There were the desperate thrashings, like a tarpon's on a boat deck, of the dozens of political Websites that set up expensive booths in the Philadelphia media center and went hours gasping for hits.

There were Bush's attempts to talk about helping people in flush economic times, whether with school-voucher experiments or with prescription-drug benefits. Bush is going where the votes are, or course, but it's a hopeful sign for the level of debate. It won't last.

There was the inside-politics tale of New York political consultant Russ Schriefer -- fired by Rudy Giuliani during his losing 1989 mayoral run -- who became one of George W. Bush's main image-makers, and one of the very few non-Austinites who crafted Bush's seamless we-are-the-world nomination pageant.

Simply by putting the words George Bush and diversity in the same sentence -- indeed, in many of the millions of sentences beamed from Philadelphia -- the Republicans have made Bush more palatable to white suburban swing voters. But that was only part of a larger marketing effort. Last week was all about answering doubts about whether Governor Bush can be trusted to be president. Swing voters are skeptical of Bush's frat-boy intellectual lightness, and even his most dedicated supporters refer to "Big Bush" and "Little Bush" in a way that suggests doubts about his executive stature. W's acceptance speech tried to chip away at those doubts, promising a new "responsibility era" led by a true son of his father's "greatest generation," and recasting his own youthful restlessness as optimistic American energy that leads to nothing but Reaganesque sunrises and limitless skies. Yet by referring to himself as "a white man in a suit" during an anecdote about a conversation with a teenage inmate, Bush boldly showed himself willing to push the conversation about race inside his party.

Ahead in the polls, Bush has so far masterfully quieted his party's cultural conservatives by promising them victory. "He says to the right, 'You want a winner? Come with me,' " says Al D'Amato. "It's that simple."

Not really. Conservatives hate Gore with a passion, and the prospect of a Republican restoration is so sweet they lined up early and pragmatically with Bush. But there were plenty of signs that the dynamic between Bush and the right is much more complicated. Vermont delegates complained that Bush didn't rip their state's blasphemous "civil unions" legislation. A spokesman for Colorado's powerful Focus on the Family grumbled that Bush is "running away from Evangelicals." Janet Parshall, the Scripture-quoting talk-radio host, said her callers are alarmed that Florida congressman Charles Canady wasn't given a speaking slot to denounce partial-birth abortion. At a Christian Coalition breakfast rally, Pat Robertson cautioned his followers to be patient until November.

This is a plot that's been unfolding for nearly a decade: Movement conservatives never truly trusted George Bush the elder, and they remain dubious about Dubya. Selecting strident pro-lifer Dick Cheney as his running mate was palliative, and Cheney's euphemistic attacks on Bill Clinton drew the week's most visceral cheers. (With his pitch-dark suits and hands folded primly in front of his waist, Cheney looked like a local bank president who secretly enjoys delivering bad news about mortgage applications.) But Cheney wasn't enough, especially after a convention programmed with Latinos, Asians, blacks, a rabbi, and, most disturbing of all for the right, an openly homosexual congressman. So Bush included a vow to sign a ban on partial-birth abortions in his acceptance speech.

Al Gore and his surrogates will try to demonize Bush, reminding voters that when Bush was floundering in the primaries, he turned to Pat Robertson and Bob Jones University. Bush will try to keep the right-wingers at arm's length without alienating them. Ralph Hudgens, a Republican delegate and Georgia state representative from "a deeply conservative district," says he loves Bush, but he also has a warning for him. "What happens when you move to the middle is, you don't lose your core votes, but you lose your conservative activism," Hudgens says. "They sit on their hands, they don't turn out their friends. It can lose you an election."

While Bush was wending his way to the convention via airplane and satellite hookup, John McCain was throwing the best party of the week. Inside a sleek city-center restaurant called Buddakan -- insert your own Cheap Trick joke here -- Ed Rendell, the exuberant former mayor of Philadelphia and the current Democratic national chairman, shredded Bush's compassion-and-diversity offensive as a "hoax," then slapped the Arizona senator on the back. Journalists reminisced about those golden days aboard the Straight Talk Express. Die-hard McCain donors groused that their hero was forced to be too deferential to "that wimp" George W. Bush. Up on the balcony stood a jolly businessman named John Burris, the Republican candidate for governor in Delaware. Burris calls himself a Bush Republican and low-tax social moderate who says he's had his own tangles with hard-core conservatives. And as ebullient a mood as Burris was in -- and as glorious a week as the soon-to-be presidential nominee was having -- Burris fretted about the trouble the religious right could cause Bush. "They eviscerated his father eight years ago," Burris said. "What else do they want? If we can get through Thursday without any eruptions, we'll be great." But there are still twelve Thursdays between Philadelphia and Election Day.


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