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Congressmen absent at GOP convention

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


PHILADELPHIA -- Traditionally, national party conventions have been a showcase for the party's elected leaders.

But if you watch the Republican National Convention on television this week, as party leaders hope you will, you can easily forget that the Republicans have controlled Congress for the past six years. Remarkably, very few GOP members of Congress have been asked to speak.

The featured speakers this year at the Republican convention include a wide variety of unelected Americans: teachers, war heroes, small business owners, a former welfare recipient, a senior citizen, a former Democrat, entertainers and a professional wrestler. Many of them are women and minorities.

These speakers were chosen, according to GOP officials, to present the country with "the new face of the Republican Party." That face is clearly supposed to be younger, more diverse and less ideologically conservative than the faces of the white men who have been leading this party in Congress for the last decade.

When asked why so few congressional Republicans are speaking, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, gives a very polite answer.

"This convention is about nominating George W. Bush to be president; this convention is not about electing Republican members of Congress," Davis says. "You only have so much prime time, and you have to control the message during those hours, and that message is the presidential race."

What Davis does not say explicitly is that the Republican Party is trying desperately to help you forget the "bad old days" back in the mid 1990s, when the most recognizable elected Republican was then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In fact, they also want you to forget the 13 mean-spirited GOP House members who served as the prosecutors of President Clinton during his Senate impeachment trial.

Of course, that is precisely why Texas Gov. George W. Bush is the party nominee and why a member of Congress did not receive the support of the party establishment for the honor of being the 2000 standard bearer. Bush got the nod, in large part, because he is not identified with the congressional Republican leadership or the ill-fated impeachment bid.

As GOP nominee, Bush represents the ascendancy within the Republican Party of the more pragmatic elected governors who cringed every time congressional leaders such as conservative ideologues Tom DeLay and Dick Armey appeared on television representing their party.

What makes the scarcity of members of Congress on the GOP convention program so noteworthy is that House and Senate leaders are currently fighting a ferocious battle to retain their majority on Capitol Hill. You would think that they would not want to pass up this opportunity to get themselves identified with the energetic Texas governor who will be their standard bearer in November.

But Davis, whose job it is to retain a GOP congressional majority, says polls show that while Bush is leading with voters, his candidacy is not doing much to boost the prospects of GOP congressional candidates.

"We don't see any indication that these elections are going to have a national theme," Davis says. "These are more a series of local elections."

Of course, Bush is appearing on the stump with many Republican candidates for Congress. And Armey and DeLay also are out stumping for the more conservative Republican congressional contenders.

But the one leader who seems to be most in demand among Republican congressional candidates is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who lost his bid for the presidential nomination to Bush. McCain is appearing around the country with Republican congressional candidates who need help.

A Bush victory would obviously be good for the Republican Party, which has not controlled the White House since Bill Clinton took Bush's father's place in 1993. But it won't be as big a victory if the Republicans lose control of the House, the Senate or both.

As the Republican convention schedule shows, Bush is focused entirely on getting himself elected. Clearly, he does not see that electing a Republican Congress is his job.

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