Elephant In A Tutu

Onstage Monday in Philadelphia's First Union Center, a striking tableau: People with disabilities. Women. And minorities galore - a sea of black and brown faces.

In the audience, a sea of white faces. In what quick glimpses one could catch of the Republican congressional candidates, a decidedly white, middle-aged, and male demographic.

Welcome to the 2000 Republican National Convention, a study in contrasts and paradoxes. A place where rhetoric does a careful pas de deux with reality.

Laura Bush and Colin Powell extol educational opportunity from the stage to a party that's consistently sought to slash educational spending and a vice presidential pick with a history of hostility to Head Start.

Colin Powell takes a shot at Republican largesse for lobbyists, while making an oblique defense of affirmative action to cheers from an audience chock full of lobbyists, party fat cats, and long-time opponents of affirmative action.

And then there's the term "armies of compassion," a component of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservative" vision, and one that suggests the degree of cognitive dissonance and mixing of metaphor going on here.

Just what is going on here? Have the Republicans turned liberal? Or, failing that, is the Grand Old Party making a serious play for the votes of liberals and traditional Democratic constituencies?

Whatever the sincerity of Bush's vision of inclusiveness and the party's professed endorsement of it onstage, an answer might be found on the electoral map. Bush has a strong hold on the mountain West. He can also count on most, if not all, of the South. Though Gore's leads are solid in the two biggest electoral states - New York and California - Bush is at least competitive just about everywhere else.

Are conservatives going to bolt Bush, even if they don't agree with the show on the convention stage? No way, not when they can smell victory. And Bush's pick of Dick Cheney as his running mate has had a soothing effect on right-wing malcontents in the Big Tent. So Bush now has full freedom to court the middle - the swing voter independents and moderate Democrats in the swing states that could very easily put him over the top in the electoral vote count.

That's what the Republicans' Philadelphia show is all about: Acting liberal so that moderates won't think they're extremists. And with Bush generally perceived as the more likeable of the two major party candidates, Al Gore will be in trouble indeed if "compassionate conservatism" nets moderate voters before the Democrats' liberal-centrist has a chance to even hoist his tent in Los Angeles.