The Magazine

A Good Convention . . . for the GOP

Among the biggest fans of the convention are the GOP truth-squadders

Aug 28, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 47 • By MATTHEW REES
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Los Angeles

"THIS WAS NOT a happy convention." So said a leading Democratic strategist after attending the proceedings here. The problems? Everything from Al Gore's sagging image to the police-state environment outside the Staples Center. But the fundamental problem, said the strategist, is that "there's little enthusiasm for Gore." How bad was it? "It had the feel of the 1984 Democratic convention, where everyone knew we were going to lose." The chief difference, adds the strategist, is that "delegates at least had warm feelings for Walter Mondale."

The results from a nightly tracking poll conducted by bear out this pessimism. The week began with Bush leading Gore 41 percent to 33 percent, and after Wednesday night his lead had grown: 44 percent to 32 percent. Gore made up 4 points Thursday night with his acceptance speech, but that still left him trailing Bush by 8 points, 42 percent to 34 percent, the same margin as before the convention began.

Other poll numbers are just as troubling for Gore. Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies says his polls show 11 percent of those who voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 aren't voting for Gore, citing fatigue with the administration's ethical problems and a belief that Gore is not strong enough to be president. And a USA Today poll taken on the eve of the convention found 47 percent of those surveyed saying there was no chance whatsoever that they would vote for Gore. Neither Bob Dole in 1996 nor George Bush in 1992 had a negative rating this high at this stage in the campaign.

Republicans are, naturally, giddy. While some, like Scott Reed, Dole's campaign manager four years ago, believe the Gore speech was effective, many believe that with its tub-thumping liberalism it will hamper the vice president's ability to reach out to independents and moderate Democrats. Jim Gilmore, the Republican governor of Virginia, branded it "angry," "full of rage," "divisive," and "appealing to people's worst instincts, hatreds, and fears."

Gilmore was here as one of the leaders of the GOP's "Truth Squad," which in addition to rebutting Democratic attacks on Bush previewed some of the general-election themes Republicans are likely to be using against Gore. With Loretta Sanchez, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, and the Clintons dominating the first two nights of the convention, GOP operatives were overwhelmed with material. (Pat Harrison, co-chair of the Republican National Committee, may have delivered the best line of the entire event when she described it as "a combination of Boogie Nights and Elmer Gantry.") And they used it to raise even more doubts about Al Gore, while sticking to the Bush campaign's policy against personal attacks.

The Truth Squad, cleverly using the language of the software industry, dubbed the Los Angeles confab a "reinvention convention" where Gore was rolling out "Version 8.0" of his makeover. Version 1.0, launched in March 1999, had Gore posturing as an "Average Joe" who grew up on a farm in Tennessee and owned a small business. Gore, in the Republicans' telling, was then remade as an "underdog" against Bill Bradley (2.0), as an "alpha male" (3.0), and as a "thinking man with a heart" (6.0). So GOP chairman Jim Nicholson, speaking at a press conference Wednesday morning, felt entitled to ask: "Who is Al Gore? What does he stand for?"

Another "reinvention convention" ploy, said the GOP Truth Squad, was to rewrite the Clinton administration's record on the economy, welfare reform, Medicare, and education. Far from being a renaissance, as Democrats claim, the Clinton-Gore years were a period of "squandered opportunities." The GOP research team, led by Barbara Comstock, produced reams of quotations and statistics to buttress the argument. But it got an unexpected assist from Bill Bradley Tuesday night. While wanly reiterating his support for Gore, he devoted much of his speech to what ails America, citing 44 million people without health insurance and undiminished child poverty. Republicans pounced. Gilmore of Virginia celebrated Bradley as "an eloquent spokesman for the failures of the past eight years."

Bradley's speech also bolstered Republican efforts to portray Gore and his supporters as wedded to slash-and-burn politics. In the opening moments of his speech, Bradley remarked, "For 15 months I ran for president . . . and I have the scars to prove it." And when Jesse Jackson launched a series of hyperbolic attacks on George W. Bush -- "he chose the Confederate flag over the American flag" -- Republicans derided it as evidence of the Democrats' "old-style attack politics."