HOUSTON -- A few steps from Neiman-Marcus displays of $14 chocolate popcorn truffles and one aisle over from Princess Marcella Borghese's cosmetic spa, Ron Franks was having a Clark Gable fantasy.
Mr. Franks and many of Maryland's 100-member Republican National Convention contingent were doing their best to revive the Houston economy.
Until yesterday, the GOP conventioneers were a disappointment the shopkeepers here. "Windowshop 'til you drop" seemed to be their motto.
But Mr. Franks had come to help change that -- with style.
Pushing his just-purchased, off-white plantation hat ever so slightly back on his head, the delegate from Queen Anne's County offered an Eastern Shore version of the famous scene from "Gone With The Wind."
"Frankly, Governor Schaefer," he said, "I don't give a damn."
Not every Marylander present was in a position to indulge in movie star or political fantasies during yesterday's shopping spree. But they were willing to do what they could, within reason, to prove President Bush's contention that the economy is perking up.
With only a night session scheduled yesterday and a morning and afternoon off, the Maryland delegation headed for Houston's Galleria.
It is an indoor mall with 308 stores offering everything from a store with no item costing more than $1 to Neiman-Marcus, where a single dollar will get you exactly nowhere.
The Galleria's enterprising management sent out 6,000 bottles of free wine in hospitality packages delivered to the hotel rooms of many delegates (not those from Maryland, however.)
And they painted a huge red, white and blue elephant on the floor of the ice rink where skaters twirl for the snackers at a gallery of restaurants on the first level.
The smaller shop owners in the sprawling, three-level facility said they had been hopeful that Republicans would live up to their reputations as high rollers with deep pockets and unbridled consumer confidence.
Again, the Marylanders were willing and eager.
"I'm going to look for a sable coat," state party chair Joyce Terhes said as she set out early yesterday morning.
"No, no," said David Blumberg, chairman of the Baltimore Republican Central Committee, "you could do that, but it would be wrong. A good Republican cloth coat would be better."
Most of the shopping goals were, in fact, quite modest.
Donna Barron bought a silver purse pen as a gift for her friend Sally Atwater, widow of Lee Atwater, the party's former political guru who died last year.
"Houston has been a great host," she said. "I am definitely going to spend my money." David Craig of Havre de Grace said he expected to spend as much as $300 for souvenirs and gifts. Yesterday, he bought a refrigerator magnet, T-shirts, Texas boxer shorts for his daughter.
Mr. Craig passed on the $1,850, politically incorrect alligator shoes by Ferragamo in the Neiman-Marcus men's department. A crocodile version was available for $1,150 -- still slightly out of his price range.
Addie Eckart, a nurse who lives in Cambridge, did likewise with the $1,900 Nutria jacket. This item had been reduced to $600 with an additional 10 percent off yesterday. Nutria -- a small rodent found on the Eastern Shore, among other places -- is a bit like a large rat, Ms. Eckardt said, and not her cup of fashion tea.
Bob Kittleman, a farmer and member of the House of Delegates from Howard County, sprang for the epic Texas item: finely stitched, stiletto-toed, nut-brown cowboy boots by Tony Lama.
Barbara Anderson of Upper Marlboro, Ann Shoch of Fort Washington and Mary Igoe went to a fashion show at Neiman-Marcus and learned that:
* Reds are in.
* Layered is cool.
* Hemlines are whatever you want them to be.
* Black leather vests and like, with silver studs, are good for those days when you feel aggressive.
* And animal prints, especially leopard, distinguish.
They weren't ready to buy, though.
"We sew," Ms. Igoe said. "We look and modify and make our own."
Yesterday's daytime free time was the first the Republicans have had since the convention began.
"So far we're not bowled over. It isn't Christmas," said Alberta Finnerman, a clerk at Mark Cross, a fine leather goods store.
"We were expecting a really big week," lamented Kim Fraser, manager of the Laura Ashley outlet. On Sunday, when many of the delegates arrived in Houston, the Galleria was over-run with visitors but not with buyers.
"Our sales don't reflect the traffic," she said.
Mr. Frank helped a little. But even then the mood didn't change entirely.
He passed up a $125 Stetson to pay just $28 for the Gable model hat, and he was proud of his bargain. The Neiman-Marcus hatbox, silvery gray with braided string handle, seemed as expensive as the contents.
"It just shows you how frugal and stable we Republicans can be," he said with a wink.