PHILADELPHIA - So far it is like a wedding without the groom, but as jubilant Republicans flock here in their finery to await the arrival of George W. Bush at their quadrennial convention, his aides are everywhere - reminding 45,000 attendees of his 11th commandment: Be unified and pay homage to diversity.
"We're very, very unified, as unified as I can ever remember. Our candidate is a likable, trustable guy,'' said Jim Nicholson, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. That was just hours after the Texas governor, soon to be the party's presidential nominee, nixed a plan yesterday to let small states have their primaries first.
Having been saying for months the primary system is broken because late primaries in many states, including the one in Pennsylvania, meant nothing after the nominees were effectively chosen by March 7, Mr. Nicholson was not told directly by Mr. Bush that he was killing the plan. A Bush aide called him after the fact.
It was another demonstration that Mr. Bush has taken firm control of the Republican Party, and it was another piece of evidence that Mr. Bush is convinced he is going to win the White House Nov. 7. Party officials were worried that Democrats would make hay over their refusal to reform the primary system; Mr. Bush's decision was an indication he's not worried.
And the polls are all going Mr. Bush's way so far. A Gallup Organization poll a week ago found Mr. Bush and his Democratic rival Vice President Gore, who will be nominated in Los Angeles in mid-August, almost even with likely voters. Going into the opening of the GOP convention tomorrow, Mr. Bush has a 16-point lead. About 18 per cent of voters told Gallup they're more likely to vote for Mr. Bush because he chose former defense secretary Dick Cheney as his running mate.
Pollsters still expect the race to tighten significantly by November, and Republicans here are muttering angrily about former Republican Pat Buchanan's bid to run on the Reform Party ticket. They fear Mr. Buchanan, who yesterday derided Mr. Bush as a man without ideas or vision, could siphon off just enough voters to harm Mr. Bush's chances. But Democrats are worried that consumer advocate Ralph Nader, running on the Green Party ticket, could hurt Mr. Gore.
The convention site here is an orgy of red, white, and blue and will be the costliest political convention in history, at least until the Democrats meet. Republicans have carefully choreographed their show as a paean to American patriotism, ethnic diversity, and Mr. Bush. Ben Franklin lookalikes and other costumed Founding Fathers are everywhere this week in the City of Brotherly Love.
Both parties' conventions are considered important because almost one-fourth of voters say they decide how to cast their ballots based on what they see at those conventions.
Having mollified the conservative wing of the party by choosing Mr. Cheney as his running mate and deciding that modifying the anti-abortion plank of the party platform was not worth losing up to a third of conservative voters, Mr. Bush hopes to use the convention to court the moderate middle.
Some of the party's most divisive members, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and House leaders Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, will be invisible this week.
"Compassionate conservatism is our watchword,'' said Andy Card, a former official in the Bush administration who is co-chairman of the convention. Despite some last-minute wiring problems, Mr. Card said the convention is to be the most high-tech political convention ever. (Democratic members of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers wore T-shirts emblazoned with "Republicans for a week.'')
From tomorrow through Thursday, the main business of the convention will be happening at the First Union Center sporting complex. Events will be shown live on the Internet. Off-site speakers will address the convention on some of the largest video screens ever built. At least 6,000 miles of fiber optic cable have been laid.
It seems as though the entire city of Philadelphia is swathed in red, white, and blue bunting. Workers have been stringing it on chain-link fences, around historic buildings, and on poles. At least 150,0000 red, white, and blue balloons are ready to fall from the ceiling of the vast First Union Center on Thursday, when Mr. Bush speaks.
The 4,132 GOP delegates and alternates, thousands of Republican leaders, 13,000 volunteers, and 15,000 media representatives arrived to party this weekend amid billboards with huge pictures of Mr. Bush and "Welcome, Republicans'' signs sprinkled liberally around the city. The cost of the convention is at least $150 million, with Philadelphia hoping to take in millions and boost its image as a tourist and business site.
There is no suspense here, but with most of the GOP political world watching, the convention is scripted to create an aura of inevitability about a second Bush presidency. Ex-President George Bush and his wife, Barbara, will be honored as elder statesmen but will not, as they did in New Hampshire, talk about "our boy.''
The subliminal theme behind unity and the Nov. 7 election is that the GOP has a well-matched pair - Mr. Cheney, the grownup with the impressive resume and conservative voting record, and Mr. Bush, the charismatic people lover who wants a gentler, kinder party image. The underlying anxiety of 1996 that nominee Bob Dole was too old and unelectable is gone. Republicans are buoyant this year.
"We've got a candidate who genuinely likes people,'' gushed Mr. Nicholson, telling a reporter that this will be a week of unity, unity, unity. "He'll give an uplifting, positive, supportive speech.''
To emphasize the Bush theme, the first night is devoted to children, featuring retired Gen. Colin Powell, who is likely to be secretary of state in a Bush administration, and Laura Bush, the candidate's wife.
Previewing the convention, Mr. Bush said Friday in Springdale, Ark: "I hope people pay attention, particularly on Monday night, when Laura Bush kicks off this convention. What's interesting about this speech? She's a fabulous speaker. She's one of these people who speaks from the heart. It's going to be good. People are going to like it.''
As Mr. Gore vacations with his family on a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina, deciding on his vice presidential running mate, Mr. Bush is taking his time getting here. He will meet with voters in Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. On Tuesday, Mr. Bush will campaign with Gov. Tom Ridge in Harrisburg, Pa., presumably patching things up with Governor Ridge, who was bypassed by Mr. Bush for the vice presidency nod.
Eager to court Pennsylvania voters, Mr. Bush intends to travel by a train to Pittsburgh on Friday after the convention ends.
The convention opens with a fife-and-drum corps to evoke Revolutionary War fervor. Then the diversity theme will be set with Mari Griego, 10, of New Mexico singing the national anthem.