Life Under The Big Top

On the day when Congress' only openly gay Republican spoke to the party's Republican National Convention in prime time, two groups that would like to exert influence within the Republican party out of proportion to their numbers met separately in downtown Philadelphia hotels, Exhibits A and B for the "big tent."

The Christian Coalition packed at least a couple of thousand supporters into a hotel ballroom for a rally that featured lots of triumphal military marching music and speeches by conservative darlings Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson.

Attendees wore dozens of Bush campaign buttons, red, white and blue Lone Star flag shirts and cowboy hats and high heels.

Blocks away, a more buttoned-down crowd of gay Republicans gathered for a cocktail reception to celebrate the inclusion of Congressman Jim Kolbe in a high-profile role at the convention.

The rallies had two things in common: a forced-smile commitment to the "inclusive" Bush campaign and convention; and the Oral Majority.

That's not a typo. Eccentric gay Florida activist Bob Kunst and his group played doorman at both events, greeting Republicans and reporters on the sidewalk with signs that said, "Stop Christian Reich's Sexual Witch Hunt" and "Bush, Falwell, Robertson, Log Cabins."

Rev. Pat Robertson brought all the Christian Republicans to their feet when he predicted Bush, if elected, will appoint "righteous judges to Supreme Court."

The line was a winner. But later, when Robertson said, "Roe v. Wade needs to be reversed," only a quarter of the crowd stood to applaud.

Perhaps the crowd's response was uneven because they were picking up on the conservative leadership's resignation that the White House will be won Bush's way, or not at all.

Looking at the packed room, Keating let fly with a little gallows humor: "Gee," he said incredulously, "I didn't think there was any longer any religious right from reading the press."

Robertson let the crowd know he was chafing a bit under the Bush campaign's "message discipline" that has shut down the rightmost and leftmost factions of the party in the name of showing independent and swing voters in TV Land a moderate, inclusive GOP.

In what a schoolteacher might call a "tone," he said, "This is a convention of sweetness and light. Nobody wants to rock the boat. But I don't want my money going to fund dirty pictures and the Planned Parenthood abortion clinics."

Colleen Parro of the Republican National Coalition for Life was more plainspoken.

"George Bush has made no commitment on the right to life," said Parro, who handed out hundreds of white vests to be worn by delegates on the convention floor to show their commitment to outlawing abortion.

She complained that there is no "speaker at the convention who represents the right to life side. Al Gore has been very clear tat the only kind of people he will nominate for judge is - someone who is pro-abortion. We expect an equal and opposite commitment from George Bush, and we have not received it."

Blocks away at the Sofitel, it was all Bush, all the time.

Even though the party picked some anti-gay language up off the cutting room floor and put it back into its platform this week, Log Cabin executive director Richard Tafel said "compassionate conservative" at least ten times.

California alternate delegate Jeffrey Bissiri, a Log Cabin Republican, said Bush has clearly "taken some heat" from Robertson's camp about his quiet outreach to gays, but Bush and the gays and lesbians who would support him have the upper hand.

"People think George W. Bush is beholden to the religious right, but it's the other way around. They're beholden to Bush because they want to win so bad," he said.

"I think he understands that he's got to win the general election now. He's not running for the South Carolina primary; he's running to be president of the entire United States. And I think he's cognizant of that."

The room was buzzing about vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney's openly gay daughter and whether she will campaign for her father.

"To me, it's Nixon to China time," Bessiri said. "Only someone with unassailable conservative credentials like Dick Cheney can teach America that it's okay to love your gay kids just the way they are!"