Republican Opening Puts Stress on Diversity

PHILADELPHIA -- Republicans kicked off their 37th national convention Monday in Philadelphia with a diverse cast of speakers who hailed the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush and a rousing challenge from Colin Powell, who forcefully urged them to do more to live up to their legacy as the party of Lincoln.

The Republicans who have gathered to make Bush their presidential nominee displayed a newfound sense of confidence and optimism about taking back the White House after eight years of President Bill Clinton. They used an opening night program that also included the candidate's wife, Laura Bush, to project a more open and inclusive image for the party.

On a night devoted to the theme of leaving no child behind, Powell, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered a stirring call to arms, asking his party "to bring the promise of America to everyone" and praising Bush as a Republican who could "bridge the racial divides in America."

Powell chastised some in his party who "miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action" for black children while uttering "hardly a whimper" over "affirmative action for lobbyists" on behalf of special interests.

Arguing that the "party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln," Powell said, "The party must follow Governor Bush's lead and reach out to minority communities and particularly the African-American community f and not just during an election year campaign."

Laura Bush, a former teacher and school librarian, promised that Bush would fund literacy, reading and teacher training programs, but she also served as a powerful character reference for her husband. "His core principles will not change with the winds of polls or politics or fame or fortune or misfortune," she said to cheers and applause from the delegates.

She drew one of the biggest cheers when she talked about people along the campaign trail and made a not-so-veiled reference to President Clinton and the personal scandals that have damaged his presidency.

"They hold out pictures," she said, "and they say to George, 'I'm counting on you. I want my son or daughter to respect the president of the United States of America.'"

Watching her from the VIP box across the hall were former President George Bush; his wife, Barbara; and George and Laura Bush's twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna. The elder Bush beamed as he watched both his son and daughter-in-law, but earlier, in an interview with MSNBC, he made it clear he is fed up with Clinton's attacks on his son. "I'm tempted ? to get off the reservation," the former president said, adding that if Clinton continues the attacks, "I'm gonna tell the nation what I think about him as a human being and a person."

But in contrast to past conventions, partisan attacks from the stage at the First Union Center on Gore and the Democrats were largely muted Monday night f although outside the convention hall there was sharp criticism of the Clinton administration.

After watching his wife's speech, Bush made an appearance via satellite in the convention hall from a suburban Columbus, Ohio, high school. "We're on our way to victory," he declared, providing the transition between his wife's speech and Powell's. In introducing Powell, Bush said, "I hope his greatest service to America might still lie ahead" f a line suggesting his desire to include Powell in his Cabinet.

Opening night came as Bush was enjoying a pre-convention bounce in the polls and expanded his lead over Gore to low double digits. Led by President Clinton, Democrats did their best to spoil the party in Philadelphia, claiming the convention was a fraudulent effort to disguise a still harshly conservative Republican Party.

Clinton used a Florida fundraiser to accuse the Republican Party of using its convention to blur the differences between Bush and Vice President Gore on issues ranging from health care to the environment. "Their strategy is to talk about compassion," he said. "It's a brilliant strategy. It's a pretty package. If they wrap it tight enough, no one will open it before Christmas."

At their afternoon session, the 2,066 Republican delegates approved the party platform with a quick voice vote and no controversy. The platform was a carefully balanced document that satisfied social and religious conservatives with its strong antiabortion plank and opposition to gay rights with more moderate language on education and immigration than in recent platforms.

With little fanfare, Bush's name was placed in nomination by Texas Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry. That represented a sharp break from the tradition of having formal nominating and seconding speeches on the convention's third night, followed by a long roll call of the states.

Instead, the Republicans will spread the roll call over three nights to break up the monotony and declare Bush their nominee before he gives his acceptance speech on Thursday.