Although some don't particularly like it and long for the good ol' days of back-room brokering and floor fights, delegates at this Republican National Convention see their primary roles as that of cheerleaders for George Bush, amiable supporting actors on a prime-time television set.
Delegates talk defensively but vaguely of "input" they had in the long presidential nominating process that led up to this week here: decision-making in local caucuses, vigorous debate in platform subcommittees--a sort of secondary, drawn-out convention out of the media limelight.
Now, their principal purpose is to showcase the presidential nominee and present to American voters the picture of a unified, enthusiastic political party, delegates said Monday.
A dozen delegates, representing a cross-section of the convention's ideological, regional, racial and gender makeup, were invited by The Times to a round-table discussion of what they believe their role is here and how satisfied they are with it.
"I'm not sure we're not just computers," said E. L. (Bud) Stewart Jr. an oilman from Muskogee, Okla. "I'll tell you, I've been to some past conventions that were a lot more interesting than this one's going to be."
But the consensus seemed to be expressed by John S. Kociolko, a Cicero, Ill., local official who conceded that "conventions have become largely ceremonial" but added: "It's wrong to look at the convention strictly as the four days we are going to spend here in New Orleans. This is a culmination of a process. It's the completion of the primaries, the caucuses, the work of the platform committee, the kind of input we have all had individually in terms of our preferences for vice president. . . .
"So I don't think there is necessarily anything wrong with the fact that conventions aren't as boisterous and divisive as they once were. . . . We should remember that the more interesting a convention is, the more damaging it can be to a political party."
Everything Centers on Victory
"The primary role of all Republicans here is to elect a Republican President," said Charles J. Urstadt, a lawyer and longtime political activist from Bronxville, N.Y. "We may disagree with some things that the candidate may suggest, but we are not going to voice it publicly in front of millions of people on television.
"Part of this whole (election) show is a one-week media event. We have been boiled down to less than a camera operation," Urstadt said.
Does that mean he regards himself as an actor on a TV show, the delegate was asked? "A good actor," he replied.
One major example of a controversial issue that most of these delegates feel deeply about but do not want to argue over on prime-time television is abortion.
Julio Brady, a lawyer from the Virgin Islands and one of the convention's relatively few black delegates, strongly objected to planks pushed into the party platform by Bush forces calling for a constitutional amendment banning abortions. "It's a personal and moral issue, and I don't believe government has any business mucking around with it," he said. But he also said that he will not make a fuss about the issue on the convention floor.
Rosemary Thakar, a real estate broker from Alamo, Calif., near San Francisco, also criticized the abortion planks. But the issue is a "subsidiary" one, she said, "and the more attention you call to a subsidiary issue, the larger you make it."
Patrick Rea, a Tinley Park, Ill., banker, thought it "would be sort of exciting" if the presidential nominee were to give delegates the opportunity to choose his running mate, perhaps from a "short list" provided by the standard-bearer. "It would create an even stronger commitment to the team," he said.
But that notion was dismissed as "preposterous" by Brady. Choosing a running mate will be Bush's "first test--his first executive decision," Brady said, and Americans are waiting to see how he handles it.
Thakar said "it would create chaos" if the convention were to select the running mate. And, reflecting what appears to be the view of most delegates in New Orleans, she said: "I see the convention primarily as a pep rally. Like a pregame. . . . And this is the largest game, the most serious game."
Mike Healy, a cattle rancher and state senator from Worland, Wyo., said it's the delegates' main responsibility "to build enthusiasm (for Bush) and spread that enthusiasm back home."
Dissatisfied With Role
Bud Stewart, however, said he was dissatisfied with the delegates' role. "I'm very much afraid that we are becoming more cheerleaders than we are real players," he said.
Rea agreed that delegates should be allowed to make more decisions. "As Republican leaders in our area, we expect to be heard," he said. "That starts the very morning you step out the front door of your house to pick up your morning paper to the day you run against someone. We're not cheerleaders. And if this convention, or any other convention, thinks its primary role is to come to be a cheerleader, I'm afraid the media will decide it is not their role to cover cheerleaders."
Wilma Grams, a Hutchinson, Minn., housewife and GOP fund-raiser, replied that if the news media stop covering conventions, "then we'll go back to the days of really fighting it out--and they'll come back to cover us."