Whose Dubya Is He, Anyway?

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In the service of George W. Bush, the Republican party may well be expanding its tent in Philadelphia this week. But rest assured the same party elders sit at the dais. Tuesday night Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and, of course, George Bush occupied the traditional front balcony at the GOP convention — with Nancy filling sadly in for Reagan — and received tribute with both videotaped and spoken words. Before shining delegate eyes, the party warriors of the past were knighted anew, their flaws and fights forgotten. In the hot filtered air of the First Union Center, these men were made to look like retired guardians of the Grail, posing for spots in the party's stained glass window.

All came to pay tribute and help crown the son king. Insurgents, both mighty (John McCain) and feeble (Elizabeth Dole). Loyalists, both unexpected-looking (Condie Rice) and solidly familiar (Norman Schwarzkopf). And a second-degree elder, Bob Dole, who somehow looks the youngest of the bunch. In subtler roles there were even the dissidents. Tom Ridge got a guest shot with the arriving Bush, and George Pataki got to emcee the audio-visual spectacular. He even said hello to the absent and fading Gipper, who still managed to haunt the place by appearing in the eyes of his wife.

All left their gripes at the door. John McCain wasn't the ranting Joan of Arc of campaign finance reform — a subject not even hinted at. He was just an old soldier with a dream for his country. The Bush camp hadn't changed a word of McCain's speech, and neither did McCain. It was stirring and highly complimentary. "My friend, Governor Bush..." This is man who barely knew Bush before Super Tuesday, and liked him less. Who earlier in the day praised Gore in the Washington Post. Tonight Mr. Straight Talk wowed the crowd by kissing the ring. Ridge and Pataki weren't pro-choice Tuesday night just like Colin Powell wasn't Monday. And certainly George Bush had never stabbed at Ronald Reagan, who had never knifed Gerald Ford, who had never liked Richard Nixon, who the Republicans are as glad is dead as they are that Pat Buchanan bolted of his own free will.

All the toasts settled eventually on George W. Bush, who's just a short ride from the coronation. What awaits him, according to the script, is big happy party, with the welcome mat out for all.

All except the religious right, which has had no voice yet in Philadelphia and won't get one. Monday was meant to draw the Different Kind of Republicanism's supposed outer circle: minorities, women, teachers. Tuesday the great lineage and the gathering of factions, focused though the lens of foreign policy and blessed, eerily like a banana republic, by members of the warrior class. Wednesday we will see the classic cigar-chomper Republican — round, shiny, rich and tough — focused through the lens of Dick Cheney.

That's getting closer to the kind of folks that came to schmooze and lobby and purchase politicians at this coronation, but it's not all the way. The majority of the eager-beaver delegates are closer to the brand of conservative that swing voters simply find terrifying. They only get to watch, but they figure Their George is just playing it cool on their stuff until November.

Thursday the GOP's presenters are trying to give us the center of the new party universe: Bush himself. He is all things to all Republicans. He is everywhere, he is love. He is a Different Kind of Republican, who will also be The Good Old Kind if there's a war or a crisis or something. He is marching the nation toward a Pax Republicana. At least that's the idea.

As they preach their face-lifted history to the faithful, Bush and his Shiny Happy Republicans may well be on a roll, but if they want a new-Reagan-sized mandate they'll still have to convince the undecideds of a few things. First, that Bush can do the job. Second, that he and his rich friends are willing to share the New Economy with everybody. Third — and this one would really seal Gore's fate — that deep in the heart of a George W. Bush administration there aren't a million pro-life zealots just waiting for him to get elected so they can sack the city.