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REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK : GOP Sings in Harmony for a Change

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the last night of their state party convention, and the Republicans were playing Joe Friday’s song.

Weary from two days of relentless democratizing, hundreds of men and women gathered at a “Dragnet Revival” gala to toast their favorite crime-fighters, Gov. Pete Wilson and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.

The familiar four-note opening of the theme song--dum, da-dum-dum--blared from two huge speakers. A series of oversized wanted posters showed the faces and aliases of some high-profile Democratic would-be governors: “Clemency Kathleen” Brown, “Johnny Come Lately” Garamendi and “Anti-Vietnam Tom” Hayden.

Wilson nodded toward the mock mug shots. “Why do they call them ‘wanted posters’?” he asked his adoring audience. “Who the hell wants them?

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Indeed, the Grand Old Party-ers who took over this bayside hotel had little use for Democrats. This bunch stood relatively united against what many called the “socialist” policies of President Clinton. And Wilson, who at one past convention had been tarred and feathered in effigy, was the prime beneficiary.

“I’m more bullish on Wilson’s prospects than at the beginning of the weekend,” said Joe Gelman, a state party official from Los Angeles County, as the convention wound up Sunday. And he wasn’t the only one.

Wilson campaign aides, who appeared almost giddy with optimism, said Wilson got a morale boost out of the three-day convention, where the governor’s reelection effort was framed as an important step toward the GOP winning back the White House.

“We’ve got to rebuild a Republican base in California if we ever want to elect a Republican president again,” said U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), a probable contender for Clinton’s job in 1996.

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Gramm didn’t waste his chance to chat up the faithful in the state with the most electoral votes. He has a knack for skewering the opposition, and Clinton’s health care plan was his chief shish kebab.

First, he compared it to a runaway freight train. “We have to blow up this train, the trestle it’s on and kill everybody in it,” he declared.

Then, he invoked Elvis.

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“There’s a big difference between Elvis and the President’s health care plan,” Gramm said. “Elvis may still be alive out there. The President’s health care plan is dead.”

But instead of Presley, the musical performers who were the talk of the convention were a best-selling rap group called Too Short.

Panelist, Sacramento Assemblyman and former sheriff’s deputy Larry Bowler told a panel discussion entitled “The Culture of Violence” that too much of popular culture incites “sexual deviancy, violence and a pro-dope lifestyle.” He lambasted MTV’s cartoon “Beavis and Butt-head” and called Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), a supporter of rap artists, a “co-conspirator in the distribution of smut.”

Then, he whipped out the lyrics to “Cuss Words,” by Too Short, and began to read aloud. The verse included references to former First Lady Nancy Reagan and a sexual act that was once widely illegal.

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The audience of several hundred sat in stunned silence.

“We have to face this stuff,” Bowler explained later. “Nancy Reagan is a lady of dignity and poise. I thought it would go over well with this crowd.”

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The Reagan Revolution was popular inside the convention meeting rooms and out. In the hotel lobby, vendors sold T-shirts that said: “Stop the Liberal Media Lynch Mob! Tell the Truth about the Reagan Legacy!”

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Their goods also offered glimpses of various futures: buttons and bumper stickers touting likely or merely hoped-for presidential candidates: Baker, Bennett, Buchanan, Cheney, Dole, Dornan, Gramm, Kemp, Hatch, Limbaugh, Wilson and, yes, Nixon. But the hottest item, according to vendor Mary Stanley, was the pin promoting the presidential prospects of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell.

“I’m selling more Powell than anything else--I guess it’s wishful thinking,” said Stanley, who also sold buttons that said, “Lorena Bobbitt for Surgeon General” and “Packwood for President: How Does that Grab You?”

Rob Artigo, a volunteer and 27-year-old college student who served in the Persian Gulf, wore Powell on his lapel.

“He is a man of impeccable character who has the leadership skills . . . we’re gonna need to get us out of this hole,” Artigo said. And what if Powell, whose party affiliation remains a well-guarded secret, turns out to be a Democrat?

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“I’d be hard-pressed not to vote for him,” Artigo said. “But somebody like him will only go into public life if the people draft him. And the Republicans are the ones to do it.”

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The question of who was and who was not a bona fide Republican came up again and again, and more than a few candidates found themselves under scrutiny.

It started the first night, when William E. Dannemeyer, running for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat, tried to paint Rep. Michael Huffington (R-Santa Barbara), the man he faces in the primary, as a liberal in conservative’s clothing.

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John G. Morris, who is seeking the Republican nomination for state controller, was the target of a resolution entitled, “Asking John Morris to Stop Contributing to Democrats.” The resolution, which noted that Morris had given small sums to Democrats’ campaigns, was tabled in committee--but not before Steve Frank, a Simi Valley party activist, spoke up: “The Republican Party and its candidates are indeed Republicans. Don’t give money to Democrats.”

The party did amend its by-laws to prohibit the California Teachers Assn. from taking part in any state GOP convention until at least 40% of the union’s political contributions go to Republican candidates. (Mike Arata, author of the resolution, claimed that although 42% of the CTA’s membership is Republican, the group gives 13 times more money to Democrats.)

And then there was the bitter attack on the political consulting firm of Robert Nelson, who served as national director of Republicans for Clinton. In one resolution, Nelson and his colleagues were metaphorically strung up as traitors, “political soldiers of fortune” who had sold out their party in order to make a buck.

“He’s a slimeball,” said one party member who supported the proposal to deny Nelson’s firm even a penny of future Republican campaign business.

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Another GOP comrade was more practical. “If we’re going to attack everyone who works in the political consulting business for being driven by dollars,” he said, “we won’t have anyone to help us in our campaigns.”

The resolution failed. But by convention’s end, many delegates wore buttons that said “RINO"--Republicans In Name Only--with a slash through it.


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