By Michael Barone
Tuesday, August 1
The last hour of Monday night's Republican National Convention proceedings made one thing perfectly clear: This is George W. Bush's Republican Party.
Scripted carefully by the Bush campaign, run so tightly that it was four minutes ahead of schedule at one point ("Time for more musical interlude," said chief campaign strategist Karl Rove cheerfully), carefully endowed with the demotic style of the more presentable parts of today's popular culture, the Philadelphia convention is intended above all to let voters get to know George W. Bush as a person.
This is not just mindless imitation of the Clinton Democratic conventions of 1992 and 1996, though there is imitation. Bush's strategists figure that Al Gore, as a candidate with high negatives, will try to disqualify Bush the way Gore's strategists believe the senior George Bush disqualified Michael Dukakis in 1988. By showing him to be shallow and untested in foreign policy, by proving that he has taken unacceptable views on issues, with a constant rat-a-tat of potshots on practically every conceivable issue.
The Monday night speeches of Laura Bush and Colin Powell can be seen as the Bush campaign's first steps to foil that strategy. Laura Bush was introduced by a tableau featuring the founder and 10 students from Houston's KIPP Academy, a charter school in a low-income neighborhood that has produced startlingly high test scores. She spoke slowly and deliberately about her background as a teacher and about Bush's education record. The message, delivered in specific rather than abstract terms: He cares.
Included were two phrases that could be interpreted (and were interpreted by the partisan Republicans in the hall) as digs at Al Gore and Bill Clinton. "His core principles will not change with the winds of polls or politics or fame or fortune or misfortune." Prolonged cheers.
"Moms and dads and grandparents," she said later, "hold out pictures of their children and they say to George, ' I want my son or daughter to respect the President of the United States of America.' " Prolonged cheers.
This is the way the Bush campaign does negative campaigning. Deftly, with no mention of Bill Clinton or Al Gore, as part of the recounting of the strengths of George W. Bush.
After Laura Bush spoke, her husband appeared on the big screen monitor in front of a classroom himself. He gave a little speech of his own, and introduced Colin Powell.
Four years ago, at the Republican convention in San Diego, Powell appeared and perfunctorily endorsed Bob Dole in a speech highlighted by his own disagreements with the Republican party on abortion and affirmative action. This year, Powell spoke with booming praise of Governor Bush (as he called him) and Dick Cheney.
Powell talked about the problem of race in America and about how he agreed with Bush's approach. This was in line with the earlier proceedings of the day, mostly untelecast, which featured African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American Republicans and extolled the virtues of racial and ethnic diversity and of immigration. Then he vouched, in great specificity, for Bush's record on education in Texas: an inoculation against current and expected Democratic attacks on Bush's work there.
Powell endorsed charter schools, private scholarship funding, home schools, and experiments with school vouchersideas that a decade ago were on the fringe of political discussion. Powell and Bush have made them something like mainstream.
Then, in a coda not included in his printed text, Powell endorsed Bush and Cheney as leaders in foreign and defense policy. Did he add this at his own initiative, to talk of his own area of expertise and emphasize his endorsement? Not clear, but it was a strong endorsement.
So went the first day. The Bush campaign, confident that the nation wants consensus-minded and not confrontation-minded leadership, has concentrated on making its positive case. It is too early to say if this is the right approach, but there is perhaps a clue in the fact that the polls as yet show no evidence that the Democrats' smartly-coordinated attacks on Dick Cheney's voting record and the TV spots they are running against him and Bush have had any discernible effect.
Click here for an archive of Reporters' Notebooks from the GOP convention.