NEW YORK -- Susan Molinari, tonight's keynote speaker at the Republican convention, is the first to admit she doesn't exactly come from the wing of the Grand Old Party known for great oratory.
"My strength is not in giving speeches," says the congresswoman from Staten Island, speaking fast, her hands moving nonstop for added emphasis.
Molinari also acknowledges that, as an Northeasterner who supports abortion rights and gun control, some see her as somewhat of a Republican anomaly.
But Molinari says she understands why Bob Dole is giving her 10 minutes under the lights. And it's not "just the woman thing," she insists, referring to the GOP's vexing need for female votes. It's also not just because she was among the first in Congress to endorse him. Nor because her husband, Rep. Bill Paxon of suburban Buffalo, N.Y., was the key fund-raiser for the 1994 elections that turned the U.S. House from Democratic to Republican.
Rather, Molinari, 38, sees herself as a symbol of "the generation that Bob Dole's vision for the country addresses."
"When you talk about giving tax cuts and stimulating economic growth and providing jobs and job security, it's more directed at people like us, like me," she says.
Tonight's convention watchers will probably get yet another glimpse of Molinari's 3-month-old daughter, Susan Ruby Paxon. The plan is to have her in the VIP lounge during mom's big speech and for dad and granddad, former Rep. Guy V. Molinari, to bring her up to the podium when it's over.
In fact, with baby in tow, the petite and down-home Molinari and her tall husband have become the mediagenic Republican family, radiating the message that the GOP understands the awesome balancing act of working parents.
In 1994, Molinari became vice chairwoman of Speaker Newt Gingrich's House Leadership Conference and took on the important role of voice of the revolution, defending every vote and policy with a snappy sound bite and a smile.
Molinari now finds her life and political career coming under added and harsher scrutiny.
Last week, a writer condemned her as a hypocrite for taking on White House drug users when, according to college friends, she, too, indulged in her youth -- which she admits but says was "a mistake."
More recently, she was caught in a lie when a New York cable TV station aired footage of her in a 1992 interview denying ever having used marijuana. Molinari says now that lying back then was "stupid," but that she had panicked.
Then there's the label problem. Since she was picked to deliver the keynoter, conservatives have amplified their complaints that she's too liberal, and moderates have moaned even louder than they have in the past that she's too conservative, citing her 91.2 percent record of voting with Gingrich.
Molinari is defensive about it all. "Labels, labels," she says. "I wish they'd make up their minds about what I am and am not. One minute I'm a right-wing extremist, the next I'm the nation's moderate."
Then she gets to Gingrich and the mostly conservative male GOP congressional leadership. "I think the fact that I'm in the room reminds them that there's a wing of our party that is an important wing, and they've certainly treated it as such," she says.
But Kelli Conlin, executive director of the New York state chapter of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, is convinced that pressure from the leadership has taken its toll. Conlin can't forget Molinari's "courageous stand" against President George Bush on the gag rule that kept federally funded clinics from advising women about abortion. Last winter, she voted to ban late-term abortions although she initially tried to keep the party from extending the ban to life-threatening cases.
"She's all over the board," Conlin says. "I think she sees herself as someone who wants to grow more as a Washington insider rather than a New York political star, where these conservative votes don't wash. I mean, they don't even wash in a more conservative place like Staten Island."
But Molinari says Conlin doesn't understand that her votes reflect not only her conscience but more importantly her district.
Pub Date: 8/13/96