Big show for small audience

Republican National Convention

September 02, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

NEW YORK - All in all, the best route to the biggest show in town is to walk down Broadway. You begin at 51st Street where Mamma Mia! has posted the sort of reviews that President Bush can only dream of: "JUST SIT BACK AND LET THE JOY SWEEP OVER YOU!!!"

Then you continue on downtown past the street where The Lion King is reigning in perpetuity and through the buffed-up and de-sleazed Times Square. You may have to walk around the Falun Gong folks who are equal-convention-opportunity demonstrators. For that matter, Republicans may want to glance away from the electronic sign that continually tallies up the money spent in Iraq - $135,292,967,998 and rising.

Eventually however, you take a right on 33rd Street and arrive at sold-out Madison Square Garden, where the Republicans are playing this week. What exactly are they playing? Moderates, of course. Scripted? Did I hear scripted? This is the watchword of both conventions, and New York is turning into the perfect bookend to Boston.

On the street Sunday, most of the protesters had even followed the directors' notes on being viewer-friendly, more 2004 than 1968. The New York police, performing on foot, horse, bike and motorbike, have been generally so media- and self-conscious that they must be trying out for Make Way for Ducklings.

As for delegates in their support roles? The ideological profile of the Republicans assembled here looks like those newly discovered exoplanets to the political solar system. Only 7 percent of the delegates think government should do more to solve national problems, while 55 percent think it should do more to promote traditional values. But their best role is as a doo-wop chorus to the mainstream.

What's in the platform is different from who's on the platform. The document has the same abortion-banning, gay-rights-bashing, tax-cutting, Social Security-risking stuff. But the stars on the playbill are the pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; the independent, anti-Swift boat-ad John McCain; the Kennedy-marrying Arnold Schwarzenegger; and Laura Bush, who was described Monday by her mother-in-law as "soothing."

Opening night was such a moderate affair that Mr. McCain got a standing O just for describing filmmaker Michael Moore as "disingenuous." (Wow, those sticks and stones will break his bones.) On the other hand, folks such as Patrick J. Buchanan, who upended George I's convention with the cry of the culture wars, barely get a walk-on here. Mr. Buchanan's cameo appearance is in a New York Times ad for a book warning of a Republican civil war.

Moderation is the plot at Madison Square Garden. But on Monday it also spilled over to the Waldorf-Astoria, where a women's event - W Stands for Women - made it sound as if the war on terror was waged in the name of international women's liberation.

Of course, none of this modulating and moderating is unusual. Politics has long been theater, and every convention has its show (and tell) time. But there is something different this year.

In the past we've had a relatively small cast of fervent supporters taking the show to a mass audience. Now we have this vast, polarized cast of committed red and blue actors. We have an epic production honing an entire campaign performance to the remaining and teeny-weeny audience of undecideds.

There's a sign directly across from Madison Square Garden for The Daily Show on Comedy Central and its "Indecision 2004." But in fact there isn't much indecision in 2004. Pollsters say not to expect a bounce from Madison Square Garden because there's nobody left to bounce. The Bush camp has already spent $90 million in ads and the race is even. You do the choreography. The vast majority of voters locked in early and tightly. The undecideds are now down to about 5 percent. So 95 percent of committed voters are trying to woo 5 percent - the conflicted, the uncommitted, the moderate.

The stage managers of politics argue endlessly about whether it's better to campaign in strongholds. But this is the last mass production, and it's essentially geared to a handful of folks in an exurb of Columbus, Ohio, who may be more focused on whether Paul Hamm should give back his gold medal.

So welcome to New York. We now have a convention that doesn't really nominate a candidate. It's putting on an act for television that barely covers it. And its message is honed for a tiny audience that may not watch and probably won't be swayed by it.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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