The Republican convention that opens Monday in Philadelphia will be devoid of suspense and interest. Its planners worked hard to make it that way. The Democrats are striving to do the same.
Once conventions were devoted to the sweaty, argumentative business of choosing the party's presidential candidates. But George W. Bush had the nomination wrapped up in mid-March and has labored since to present himself to the public as a pleasant, non-threatening fellow.
In 1988, his father, then-Vice President Bush, tried to enliven his convention by springing a surprise choice as running mate, Dan Quayle. George W. was not going to repeat that mistake. He announced his veep, Dick Cheney, on Tuesday, a pick hailed as reassuring. One of the convention's principal chores will be to rubber-stamp that choice.
Another task will be to adopt the party platform - as is. Top Republican officials have been busy sanding the rough edges off the platform to achieve that fragile balance between abandoning the party's principles and alarming the voters. The warm, fuzzy expression of good intentions that results is not timidity but hard, practical politics. American presidential elections are fought, and decided, over narrow differences in the middle.
Late in the week there was a ripple of mild GOP discord - the so-called ''Delaware Plan'' that would let the small states vote first in the 2004 primary calendar. While this issue is hardly one to send the voters swarming to the barricades, Bush's top aides still moved quickly to smother even that incipient small fuss.
No party that is in command of itself wants its convention to be other than a four-day infomercial. Neither party wants a repeat of the 1968 Democratic convention, with its club-swinging suppression of the antiwar wing, or the 1976 Republican convention when President Ford battled Ronald Reagan down to a handful of delegates. Each party controlled the White House at the time; each party lost that fall.
Just because the conventions are bland fare - 40 percent of Americans say they won't watch even the little the networks will offer - doesn't mean they are useless. There will be 45,000 people there - to lobby, raise money, make connections, seek access, plead causes, attend parties and radiate corporate good will.
Most of the 4,000 or so delegates and alternates, on whose behalf the convention is supposedly being held, will find that they aren't invited to - or can't afford - the best parties. They are there as extras, to flesh out the crowd scenes and perform a simple role: Smile for the cameras.