Making GOP the in-crowd

Protests common for party's youths

Election 2004

September 02, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - The college Republicans at a youth convention in Madison Square Garden were listening to motivational speeches yesterday - all right, some admitted, they were daydreaming about whether they wanted to grow up to become GOP super-strategist Karl Rove or George W. Bush himself - when their reverie was rudely interrupted.

About 10 protesters broke into the Garden, posing as young Republicans in conservative button-downs and pressed pants to get past security. They ripped off their nice shirts to reveal anti-Bush signs pinned to T-shirts underneath and shouted, "Bush Is Killing Millions!" and "Bush Lies!"

At the afternoon youth pep rally, as White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. spoke from the podium, young Republicans tried to find a little refuge in the GOP bubble. But protesters burst in and popped it.

This is something young Republicans know how to handle; as the minority on college campuses, they're used to being mocked, confronted, taunted. Before arriving here, they participated in strategy sessions about dealing with protesters, so they were prepared.

One nanosecond after the protests started, the roughly 150 college Republicans tried to drown out the intruders, chanting "USA!" and "Four More Years!" The protesters, who oppose the Bush administration's AIDS policy, hollered back, standing on chairs inside the young Republican scrum. With everybody about the same age, it almost felt like the stands at a particularly contentious college football game, until the Secret Service arrived.

Within seconds, an agent hooked a young woman around her neck with his arm, and subdued her over a row of folding chairs and handcuffed her. As the woman unleashed a chilling scream, Card continued with his speech, saying, "You represent the future of America." The agents hauled her off the floor, still screaming, and everyone applauded.

Soon after, the counterspin started in this group of political hopefuls and mini-operatives. The college students buzzed that one of their own got punched in the face in the melee. But they were careful not to go negative, and though most were new to interviews, they knew to speak to reporters in careful sound bites.

"I understand their right to express their views," Kelso Barnett, 23, a senior at University of California at Berkeley, said of the unwelcome convention guests. "I just wish they'd do it in a manner that is ultimately more becoming for them."

Though the party is trying to make it hipper to be Republican - doing so in part by showcasing the president's 22-year-old daughters at the convention Tuesday night and at the youth convention yesterday - it's sometimes hard for young GOPers to feel the love when they're out in the college world.

"Walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, when I'm wearing a Bush T-shirt, I hear `Nazi' and `Fascist,'" said Barnett. "I just sort of get used to it. Actually, if you're challenged on your views every day and you're still a Republican, that's saying something."

Phil Palisoul II, a senior at the University of California at San Diego, experienced worse this week when he passed some protesters on his way to a Manhattan bowling party for California Republican Rep. David Dreier:

"The first night we were here," he said, "we were spit on."

Weeks like this finally reward embattled young Republicans, as was evident when Jenna and Barbara Bush approached the podium yesterday. The twins, in their slim jeans, cropped jackets and hot-rollered flowing hair, offered an in-crowd vibe these students craved.

At the convention the previous night - when the twins delivered a speech filled with pop culture references that some of the older delegates didn't appear to get - some observers wondered whether disapproval lurked in the convention center and behind the elder Barbara Bush's tight smile when "Gammy" served as the punch line to Jenna's slightly risque Sex and the City joke.

Yesterday, Jenna recalled accompanying her father, a former part-owner of the Texas Rangers, to a baseball game on a 108-degree day. She was so miserable she mummified herself with wet paper towels, she said, but he still wouldn't leave before the last out. Ever the PG-13 daughter yesterday, Jenna quickly arrived at the moral of the story: "Dad supports his team until the very last pitch," she said. "He can take the heat, literally. That's a critical quality in a dad and in a president."

Barbara hinted that sometimes she missed curfew, but she didn't dare say why.

She praised her father's discipline: "From running a marathon at age 45 to reading the Bible daily to giving up his greatest passion, cheesecake," she said, "our dad has showed us the importance of leading a disciplined life."

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