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‘92 REPUBLICAN CONVENTION : GOP Faithful Ponder if Party Will Unite Behind Bush : Election: Some see the convention as the jump-off point for a strong campaign. Others wonder if it’s too little, too late.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

On this tantalizingly placid Sunday morning, the balloons were strung in plastic sausages high above the convention floor and the pristine red carpet was tacked down. The chairs were positioned just so and flags were fluttering from the Astrodome and along the broad avenues of a spiffed-up, well-coiffed Houston.

And all anyone was wondering was whether the upcoming family reunion will provoke fistfights or bearhugs.

The Republicans open their 1992 convention today with equal parts angst and adrenaline. The frustrations over a President who lags in national polls far behind the Democratic governor of a small state--as the GOP likes to refer to Bill Clinton--have coalesced in Republican delegates who are burning with the desire to make all things right in the space of a few fleeting days.

And the overwhelming sentiment from those who like George Bush or those who would just as soon leave him is relief that, finally, undeniably, the presidential battle is about to be joined.

“We have the possibility here of getting momentum, and we’re hoping to get that,” said a relieved Jerry Davis, the GOP chairman in Arizona and leader of the state’s delegation.

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But in Davis’ mind, as in the minds of many of the 2,210 delegates, there remains a nagging worry: “If we miss this opportunity,” he said, “there’s a good possibility we’re in for a long fall. Not to mention four years.”

There are delegates at the convention who are fond of President Bush and delegates here who scorn him. There are few, however, who endorse the strategies of a campaign that has foundered for months without firm direction from the President or his team.

“This is the beginning for Bush, this is where he gets his oomph and things begin going our way,” said U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella of Maryland.

More blunt than most, she added: “So far, I haven’t been real excited about the campaign. In fact, there really hasn’t been a campaign. I think everyone has been viewing the convention as the jump-off point.”

Only one question remains: A jump-off to what?

It could be dissension, as was evidenced Sunday at a news conference called by abortion-rights advocates still burning ears and twisting arms in their effort to raise their issue before a convention whose platform fully rejects their stance.

There was Ann Stone, leader of the Republicans for Choice group, her face sunburned from button-holing delegates at pool sides and barbecues, calling the response “amazing.”

“People kept coming up to me and saying: ‘It’s about time we took a stand on this. Thank you for giving us a voice.’ ”

A voice of a different sort, meanwhile, emanated from the back of the crowd.

“I’m sick of all this yelling and moaning and whining about this one lousy topic,” grumped an anti-abortion Nebraska delegate, arms crossed atop his ample girth.

“We’re all on the same team, so why are we carrying the ball in different directions? It looks bad. I tell you, it looks bad.”

More to the point, it looked like a convention, like the quadrennial bash that each of America’s major political parties dives into without knowing how much muck might swirl to the top of the pool.

It could be, said many of the quieter voices of this convention, that out of the tension of this week in Houston a sense of Republican unity will emerge.

“We agree on more than (we) disagree,” noted Jim Conran, a California delegate and director of the state Department of Consumer Affairs. “And, truthfully, I don’t take this platform stuff very seriously anyway.”

Even among the supporters of former television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, there were unexpected indications that things could go well. Although warning that “there’s still a lot of Buchanan people out there who won’t turn over their vote,” Tom Williamson of Colorado put his bet on unity.

“First and foremost,” he said, “we’re Republicans.”

In the next breath, however, Williamson was openly worried.

“I caught the President a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “It was tough to get pumped up. He was starting to sound better--but I hope it’s not too little, too late.”

Neither, said the chairman of the Republican National Committee, acting as though he would just as soon forget the previous eight months of this year and start from scratch.

“Today is the first day of the reelection campaign of George Bush for four more years,” an ever-optimistic Richard Bond told Bush volunteers gathered Sunday afternoon on the convention floor.

As the formal opening of the convention neared, attention was more and more focused on Bush and what he must do this week--especially Thursday, when he addresses the nation.

Message to the former Yale first-baseman: Hit a home run.

“I’d like to see him get up on the stage, roll up his sleeves and say, ‘Look, guys, we’ve got some problems we need to address,’ ” said 24-year-old John Schafer of La Crescenta, a UC Berkeley senior and member of the College Republicans. “Not blaming himself, but putting aside politics and saying we’ve got to deal with these problems.”

While Schafer criticized what he called “a clear lack of direction at the present time,” another college Republican was still feeling superior to the Democratic Party, whose long history of internal warfare has been fairly well quelled this year.

“There’s a big difference between Republicans being in disarray and Democrats being in disarray,” said Phillip Steinman, a student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “The Democratic Party is always in chaos, but if we have one minor squabble--like we’ve seen this past week on abortion--then everyone thinks it’s a big deal. Clinton’s big lead in the polls is because the Republicans haven’t started campaigning.”

The H & H Ranch, where 300 young Republicans like Steinman gathered Sunday night, and the convention floor, where the volunteers gathered earlier in the day, were the province of the fresh-faced.

That will not be the case with the convention itself. Under the crush of reporters and television crews, honored guests and celebrities, will be delegates who on average are middle-aged white men.

The relative blandness of the delegate pool was best demonstrated by the most common last name: Smith. And its most popular male name: John.

But up on the podium, the Republicans will show an entirely different face.

Only 73 of the delegates are Latino, but three will have featured roles within the first two days of the convention. Ninfa Laurenzo, a friend of the president’s and owner of a chain of Mexican restaurants that bears her name, will deliver the Pledge of Allegiance at today’s opening session. Sarah Flores, a deputy Los Angeles county supervisor, will speak tonight. Tuesday morning, the convention will hear from Jose Nino, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Although only 83 delegates are black--compared to more than 1,800 whites--three blacks will have featured roles in the first 24 hours of the convention. Fred McClure, a former legislative aide to Bush, will sing the National Anthem Monday morning, and Condoleezza Rice, a former special White House assistant for national security affairs, will speak Monday night.

The next morning, the delegates will hear from the Rev. E. V. Hill, pastor of the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Los Angeles and a longtime Bush supporter.

Even a Clinton supporter is making an appearance--Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, who stood by Clinton’s side on July 23 as he castigated the President in Bush’s adopted hometown. Lanier was one of three Houstonians whose fund-raisers for Clinton that night raised $1 million.

There has been much hue and cry this week over the presence--to be honest, the absence--of Republican Party leaders. For starters, take the party’s congressional delegation: Only 93 of the 167 Republican members of Congress saw fit to come to Houston, with dozens of others pleading the press of business at home.

For some, locked in tight races, it was impossible to pass up a week at home with constituents. Others were suspected of not wanting to risk being sighted within the tense confines of the Astrodome.

Republican governors, traditionally the leaders of their state delegations, were far more loyal, with 17 of the 20 scheduled to be in Houston. The most prominent no-show, of course, was California Gov. Pete Wilson, who did the next best thing by appearing on video before the California delegation Sunday morning.

For some of those governors, being here in Houston serves two purposes. They can demonstrate loyalty to Bush and simultaneously curry favor with delegations and Republican leaders whose support could come in handy in a future national bid.

Times staff writers Geraldine Baum, John Broder, Douglas Jehl and Jenifer Warren contributed to this story.


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