GOP delegates arrive as Bush platform is completed

PHILADELPHIA - Republicans nailed the final planks into place in George W. Bush's campaign platform Saturday as delegates flocked to their convention city, determined to launch the Texas governor on his way to the White House.

''This platform is putting the flesh on compassionate conservatism,'' said Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, echoing a slogan that Bush hopes to ride to victory this fall.

Republicans are conceding no region, no issue and no voter'' in the campaign already unfolding, said host governor Tom Ridge, voicing optimism that stemmed from polls showing the GOP ticket running ahead of the Democrats.

''The good news is we're ahead in the polls,'' Bush said at a midday rally in Louisville, Ky., one of three stops during the day. ''The bad news is the election isn't tomorrow. We've got a lot of work to do.''

Delegates, 2,066 in all, arrived by air, rail, car and - in the case of Delaware's contingent - by a boat that plied the Delaware River. ''This is a splendid idea. The whole convention these days is about style and pageantry,'' said Rep. Mike Castle, who made the voyage.

An Associated Press survey showed that half the delegates were attending their first convention. A veteran, Charles Thone of Nebraska, was picking up credentials for his 13th, an unbroken string dating to the 1952 gathering in Chicago.

That was four years after the last GOP convention in Philadelphia, when Thomas E. Dewey won his party's nomination but lost the White House.

Republicans expressed optimism that Bush's general election fate would be different, and new polls spurred their optimism. A CNN-Time survey released Friday gave Bush an edge over Vice President Al Gore, 52 percent to 36 percent, with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader at 5 percent and Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party at 4 percent.

Bush was making his way methodically toward Pennsylvania, his campaign itinerary reflecting his optimism. He spent much of the day barnstorming through Kentucky, a state that Democrats won in 1992 and 1996 but where private surveys show the Republican ticket leading Gore.

Bush said, ''We've got a philosophy that's conservative and a philosophy that's compassionate. Our message is, give us a chance ... to make sure the American dream touches every willing heart.''

Gore was on vacation, but Democrats were making plans to blemish Bush's convention celebration. Party sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Democratic National Committee intended to air its first negative ad next week, at a cost of about $3.5 million in 17 states.

Bush's running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, was in Washington preparing for his appearance in Philadelphia on Sunday before the convention.

In an interview taped for Fox News Sunday, Cheney took a few swipes at Gore. ''He voted for me in the Senate'' for confirmation, Cheney said. And even though Gore was a member of the Armed Services Committee at the time, ''he didn't attend many of the meetings.''

Bush's one-time primary rival, Sen. John McCain, was arriving from Washington, and in a style that reprised a presidential campaign that blazed briefly last winter. ''This will remind us of what a great time we had,'' the Arizona senator said before boarding his bus, the ''Straight Talk Express.''

Later, at a speech designed to boost the chances of a Republican congressional candidate, McCain exuded confidence about November: ''I have no doubt about the victory of Governor George Bush and Dick Cheney, who will lead this country into the next century.''

McCain was part of a large supporting cast assembling in Philadelphia for what was unmistakably Bush's convention.

The governor's high command took control of every aspect of the proceedings, from drafting the platform to arranging seating on the convention floor. That left Bush's home state delegation from Texas front and center - and representatives of New Hampshire, which voted McCain last winter - banished to the outer perimeter.

Gov. Thompson of Wisconsin presided over the drafting of a platform designed to avoid antagonizing the party's conservative electoral base, but softened at Bush's behest to help appeal to swing voters in the middle of the political spectrum. It expresses opposition to abortion and gay rights, speaks favorably of the death penalty and offers support for tax cuts and a missile defense shield.

Aides spread the word that the governor had weighed in when the platform committee considered a provision that fell short of his wishes on education.

''He called this morning to make clear what he wanted to happen on education and how important it was, and obviously the wheels turned here,'' said the governor's spokesman Ari Fleischer. ''Now the platform reflects Governor Bush's cornerstone.''

Fleischer spoke after the platform committee rejected an attempt by conservatives to support closing the Department of Education. Instead, the panel agreed to reinstate Bush's recommended language, that the department should play a ''progressively limited role'' in education.

Bush arrives here Wednesday, the third day of a convention that will culminate in his acceptance speech on Thursday.

Convention planners promised a four-night program that would underscore Bush's overarching campaign theme of ''compassionate conservatism.'' One innovation: a roll call of the states spread over several nights, rather than the one marathon proceeding that both parties have used in the past.

Another departure from past conventions was a reduction in oratory. The Bush campaign arranged it so delegates and television viewers would see a series of ''Profile in compassion'' videos. Among them were presentations on a free clinic in Kentucky; a private center in Cleveland to help Hispanics in need of assistance and a Texas school that emphasizes character.

''One of the things is to make the convention interesting so that people pay attention to it,'' Bush told reporters aboard his chartered plane. ''We don't have the usual parade of elected officials.''

While the convention begins on Monday, the partying didn't wait. Among the multitude of festivities, a California reception and movie premiere at the city's Academy of Music.


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