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As hopes dim, GOP hopes to shine in Houston


HOUSTON -- How do you paint the town red when you're feeling so blue?

It could be one of the titles on the country-western jukebox over at Gilley's nightclub.

Or it could be the theme for the Republicans opening their convention here today.

Sagging in the polls, splintering over issues and taking the stage in the shadow of the opposition's A-plus performance last month, the GOP faces a heroic task in turning its week of festivities into a humdinger of a party and providing George Bush the jump-start he needs to move in on Democrat Bill Clinton.

But the GOP is giving it all it's got -- from the live elephant imported to greet members of the Texas delegation to the celebrity-studded "Red, White and Boots" bash tonight to the fireworks display planned to explode inside the 15-story Astrodome after Mr. Bush's acceptance speech Thursday night.

In the tradition of Texas, and in the tradition of Republicans, there are parties, hundreds of parties, big parties -- western-style gigs with longnecks and ribs at local barbecue joints, four-figure fund-raisers ("home parties") at the private estates of oil magnates and assorted millionaires in the tony River Oaks nTC section.

But there is little of the unabashed euphoria that marked the Democrats' revelry last month.

In its place here is a sense of anticipation and hopefulness that the president, after weeks of being hit by the Democrats and having his own lobs promptly returned, will finally get his day alone in the spotlight.

"I'm kind of holding my breath right now," says Mary Louise Gulley, a volunteer host.

At a three-ring media party Saturday night, thousands of convention-goers found everything from crawfish etouffee to venison sausage, along with a zydeco band, jazz trio, roving cartoon characters (from Astroworld) and a life-size elephant made from balloons. But many also found that air of restraint -- in mood if not consumption.

"Anxiety hangs heavy," said liberal columnist Mark Shields.

If a more conservative colleague disagreed, it was only in degree.

"Apprehension," pundit Robert Novak offered as his assessment.

"I still feel George Bush is going to win, but it's different this year," says Indiana delegate Alice Stocker. "The enthusiasm is not there. It won't be like four years ago. The general feeling is it's an uphill battle this time."

This lack of luster also appeared to translate into 1,000 fewer volunteer hosts than the Houston host committee had hoped for and less than half as many volunteers as the cleanup committee had expected.

But what convention planners lack in manpower, and perhaps genuine excitement, they have tried to make up for in spectacle. TheGOP has built a stately faux sandstone 50-foot podium in the Astrodome, blown up four times as many balloons as their opponents had (225,000, or 101.8 per delegate) and boast two video walls to the Democrats' one.

But many here say that despite the 11-foot chocolate elephants and Roman candles, it is the convention speeches they are banking on to generate the real electricity. But even here, the optimism is guarded.

"George needs to pull some rabbits out of his hat," says Steve Jones, a convention worker and Republican, as he checks some of the more than 5,000 phone lines inside the hall.

"He will have to do something dramatic," echoes Marvin Kalb, a former CBS newsman who heads Harvard University's center on the press and politics, as he looks out from the 60th floor of the Texas Commerce Tower, the site of one of Saturday night's more elegant parties. "And the selection of that drama will tell people a lot about the nature of the Bush campaign."

The bruised and battered incumbent isn't the only obstacle tosmooth sailing in Houston this week. Some have come to see this convention as synonymous with only one thing: the abortion fight.

"There's so much friction, that's all you see on TV," says Bonnie Thurwalker of Cypress, Texas, a chaperon to one of the high school bands playing at today's convention opening.

There's even a touch of friction in how the host city itself is playing to the thousands of visitors here. Although there are rodeo events, country music entertainers and official "greeters" in western garb who cheer on delegates as they arrive at the airports, some planners have attempted to replace the urban cowboy image with an urbane cowboy.

"We're not just cowboys and 10-gallon hats," says Ms. Gulley, the volunteer host. "We're very cosmopolitan. We can be flexible. We can be anything you want us to be."

What a number of conventioneers want Houston to be this week is a rollicking good time, and they are not about to let a weakened candidate, lousy poll numbers, a lagging economy and dissension over such issues as abortion get in the way.

"Excitement is all in the mind of the beholder," says Georgette Mosbacher, who, along with her husband, general campaign chairman Robert A. Mosbacher Sr., is playing host to two receptions at the couple's new River Oaks home this week. "And I'm excited."

Mike Cochran, a veteran Fort Worth reporter checking out the convention party scene, says, "There are 40,000 people here, and 39,900 of them are here to have a good time. And they're going to have a good time."

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