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September 14, 2004 > Attending the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City

Attending the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City

A Special Report to the Tri-City Voice

by David Howell

For four hot days in August, New York City was Grand Central Station for the Republican Party. As an "Alternate Delegate" with the California Delegation to the convention, I was able to get a first-hand look at what really happens at a convention and why party conventions remain relevant to the American public.

In the past, conventions were the place and time when a political party selected their standard bearer for the upcoming election. This year, through democratization of the nomination process by way of caucuses and primaries, the role changed to that of a party for the Party.

Legally, the Convention is simply the meeting where those persons sent as Delegates from the States meet to cast their votes for the candidates. Although this can be done over the phone or electronically these days, political parties still feel the need to gather their forces for a show of unity and to showcase their candidates.

The formalities of the convention include adoption of a Party Platform, crafted in advance of the convention. For the most part, political advisors of the Party's candidate write the platform. Party activists have some minor function, but the platform is approved with a quick vote at the very outset of the convention in order to avoid the unpleasantness of a platform fight on the floor of the convention.

So why have conventions? A convention serves two principal functions: to provide a weeklong infomercial for the party's candidate and to energize the party's most dedicated workers for the mad dash to Election Day. Political parties rely on the convention to support their candidates and expose weaknesses in the opposition.

The infomercial function of the convention is most obvious to people at home. This is what we see on T.V. Major networks have been cutting coverage over the years, but cable news networks are showing gavel-to-gavel proceedings. People are able to see more of the convention than they may have in the past.

The energizing effect of the convention on party members is important but may be less obvious to viewers at home. Remember that the delegates, alternates and guests attending the convention are among the party's most dedicated and effective volunteers; who end up with substantial out-of-pocket expenses for the convention.

In a year when the election promises to be close, energizing the volunteers is a critically important function of the convention. If the primary volunteers believe that their guy has a chance to win, then they will work that much harder back in the precincts, and they will help energize the legion other volunteers who cannot come to the convention.

The parties present a variety of speakers, some whose role is to encourage and enhance the excitement of the crowd. These are the "red meat" speakers. At the Republican convention, these speakers included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudy Guliani, and Senator Zell Miller of Georgia. To a lesser degree, Vice President Cheney and John McCain represented this kind of speaker. When one of these speakers delivers a great line, the place erupts as 20,000 like-minded people leap to their feet and cheer wildly. The feeling defies description!

The delegates from the State of California are technically charged with casting their votes for their candidate during the roll call of the states. The parties have different rules about how many delegates are allowed from each state, and how they are appointed or elected. For the Republicans, each Delegate has an alternate delegate who will serve in his place if he is unable to do so. The alternate delegate's primary job is to help fill the arena and cheer loudly for whoever is speaking. This was my task as an alternate delegate.

Delegates are, for the most part, elected. You don't remember ever voting for anyone to be a Delegate to the National Convention? Well, when you vote in the primaries, you are technically voting for a slate of delegates who have promised to support the candidate you selected. In the Republican Party, these delegates are obligated to vote for "their" candidate on at least the first ballot of the convention - there has not been a case of multiple ballots in the Republican Party for a very long time. Delegates who make up the slates are chosen by the candidate campaign staff. Since only one candidate was running in the primary this year, the California Bush campaign picked the delegates and alternates from a list of those people who applied for the positions. I have been active in state party politics off and on for some time, so I guess that's why I was chosen.

"The Governator" gave his speech on Tuesday night. To say that he brought the house down is an understatement. His speech was eloquent, serious, uplifting and spoke more to the broad outlines of Republican philosophy. His personal story is extremely compelling, and his delivery was exceptional. Governor Schwarzenegger served to show a more moderate face of the Republican party.

I understand there were lots of protesters in New York for the convention. I only saw about 50 while I was there. There was one big demonstration on the Sunday before the Convention, and then the occasional smaller protests throughout the week, but the net effect was negligible.

The Convention was protected by thousands of New York Police Department officers, all of whom performed their jobs superbly. There were legions of police throughout Times Square, where our delegation hotel was located, and throughout the main areas of Manhattan affected by the convention.

It would seem a fair question why anyone should care about the convention. These are scripted events, and one could argue that the conventions are more for show than anything else. But what a show they are. The conventions serve these functions:

1. To offer more insight into the candidate of the party. It's not so much what the candidate says, but the range of other speakers who come to the podium. This gives strong insight into the candidate's view of what is important to Americans. Politicians, after all, have to appeal to a wide variety of Americans to maintain support, and this is how we find out what they think we think.

2. We can see how the candidate measures up against his performance in the primaries. This is more relevant in parties who had contested primaries, like the Democrats this year. When running in primaries, the candidate has to appeal only to his own party. When running in a general election, the candidate must have appeal across party lines.

3. We can get an idea of the general philosophy of the party from the convention. Very few people who affiliate with either party agree 100% on all party positions. The viewer gets a chance to see which is closer to his or her ideals.

Some personal observations:

The time-honored question of "Ginger or Mary-Ann" has a new update: "Jenna or Barbara?" The Bush Twins were one of the big stories of the convention. Out of college, and apparently under better control, they were everywhere during the convention; giving Arnold Schwarzenneger a run for his money for total paparazzi count. The papers were full of detailed accounts of their clothes and appearances at parties. The Twins spoke immediately after Arnold on Tuesday night of the Convention, an unenviable position if ever there was one. They had a little comedy routine that fell a bit flat due to inside jokes and spotty delivery. I, however, thought the unpolished nature of the routine made it charming and I was quoted in USA Today to that effect. For the record: Barbara.

There's a great little restaurant at 48th St. and 8th Avenue in midtown Manhattan called Pigalle which I can recommend unreservedly. I ate there twice and one of my compatriots ate there four times over the course of two weeks. When you're looking a good bottle of wine and a very good pepper steak at 3:00 AM, this is the place for you. If you're there between midnight and 7:00, say hello to the pretty Hungarian waitress, Zhusa.

The party food was the best I've ever seen for political events. The standard rubber chicken and buttered peas found at most political events was nowhere to be seen. The opulence of national party events was a revelation. Paid for in most cases by big corporate sponsors (Aerospace companies, Indian Gaming interests, State Chambers of Commerce, Railroad companies, etc.) these parties were fantastic.

Here's a sample:
Wednesday night: party at Tavern on the Green for the California delegation. Great buffet, open bars, fabulous desserts, some famous Country and Western band (I didn't really pay attention to who they were) in a strikingly beautiful location.

Thursday lunch: hosted by the California Chamber of Commerce at Planet Hollywood in Times Square. Good food, open bar, a little speech by Governor Schwarzenner. Thursday before the convention: a party at Chelsea Piers hosted by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Good food, open bar (see a pattern?), a nice singing group from U.VA. Thursday after the convention, a party aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier moored in New York Harbor and now a floating air and naval museum. Good food, open bar, a pretty good cover band. There was more. Makes a little guy like me feel pretty important.

The proliferation of blinking L.E.D. accessories has reached critical mass. There were women who could have been runway markers at JFK they were blinking so much. Little clusters of these women were clearly visible from hundreds of yards away across the convention floor. Maybe we could have used a few Fashion Police to go along with all the NYPD.

I think this was the first time I've ever had to walk through radiation detector units as well as metal detectors.

Given the importance of the security, I don't understand why they used TSA agents to search bags. It was required that all electronics going into the convention center be powered up to prove the item was what it appeared and many of the digital cameras confounded these guys. Thank goodness we don't have to do that at the airport.

Michael Moore wrote a daily column for USA Today which was one of the least serious things I've ever seen in print. He was present at the convention, and the subject of an exceptionally well-received jab by Senator John McCain. It seemed no coincidence he was sitting directly below the Al Jazeera media box. You'd think that with all the money he's made he could see a barber now and then.

Front-runners for 2008 for the GOP:

o Rudy Guliani. His personal foibles are old news. He's a great speaker. He's a proven exceptional leader. He's relatively moderate on social issues and has great cross-party appeal.

o Rick Santorum. A senator from Pennsylvania. He's a very strong conservative, but won't sell well in California. He could carry enough Super Tuesday states in the South to take the nomination.

o John McCain. He's a moderate, and seems to have great cross-party appeal. However, he's not popular with party activists who detest his campaign finance "reforms.". He also suffers from a common malady of Senators, in that he's too nice to the opposition. That does not sell well in primaries.

o Colin Powell. He cannot be discounted. He's very popular, but very, very moderate. His appeal to party activists may be limited. He did not speak at the convention, following the usual rule that the Secretary of State stays well away from the Convention to avoid losing the top leadership in a catastrophic attack.

o Arnold Scwarzenneger. He's not allowed to run under current rules. There is a move afoot to amend the Constitution to allow for naturalized citizens with at least 20 years of citizenship. This is sponsored by Senator Hatch of Utah, and there is some support in the Democratic Party because of Jennifer Granholm, an up-and-comer in that party who was born in Canada. While the idea is not currently very popular, Arnold's performance at the convention may to help push it forward. If the rule changes, he's the Man.

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