PHILADELPHIA - On the eve of the Republican convention, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney dismissed criticism of his conservative voting record in Congress as trivial "hogwash" but admitted he'd vote differently now on several issues.
Appearing on all five network television talk shows yesterday, Cheney reacted with some asperity at times as he gave the most detailed defense of his views since he was chosen as Gov. George W. Bush's running mate last week.
Cheney described Democratic criticism of his House votes as a "debate over trivia," and added, "I don't think it's going to fly."
But he indicated that he would vote today to ban armor-piercing bullets and plastic handguns, two gun-control measures he opposed in the 1980s. He also said that he no longer opposes the federal Education Department and supports the Head Start program, both of which he voted against as Wyoming's lone congressman.
"I hope the Democrats spend the next three months going after my voting record. I'll be happy to defend it," he said on CNN. "But in the meantime, we're going to talk about the future of the country, and we're going to win the election."
The most unified Republican convention in years will get under way here today with party members increasingly upbeat about their chances of winning back the White House. Newly released opinion polls peg Bush's lead over Vice President Al Gore at between 6 and 11 percentage points and indicate that voters generally approve of Bush's selection of Cheney.
Today's main convention attraction will be Laura Bush, the governor's wife, making her national speaking debut in prime time.
Bush's planners gave her the opening-night slot in hopes of sparking public interest and confounding predictions that the four-day event would draw record-low home-viewing audiences. Also on tonight's program will be retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush's father, who has indicated a willingness to take a Cabinet position if the younger Bush is elected.
"I can't wait for America to get to see Laura. I can't wait for them to get to hear my great wife," Bush told 3,000 supporters in Blue Ash, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb.
It was his only public appearance as he continued to work his way toward the convention city on a five-day campaign swing. Bush spent part of the day rehearsing his acceptance speech, the most important event in a convention otherwise lacking in suspense.
Voter surveys show that many Americans are favorably disposed toward the 54-year-old Texan but know little about him. That has raised the stakes for his speech on Thursday night.
'A broadened message'
In an interview published yesterday, Bush said he hoped to convey "a broadened message" that would appeal to independents and Democrats.
"One of the things that people don't really know about me is that I've been good about bringing people together to get things accomplished in Texas," he told the New York Times. Bush is to be introduced at the convention by the widow of Bob Bullock, the state's Democratic lieutenant governor during his first term.
"To the extent that people wonder whether I can speak before a national audience and speak from my heart, hopefully the speech will answer that," Bush added.
Not since the 1984 convention in Dallas, which renominated President Ronald Reagan, have Republicans been so united. Most of Bush's primary rivals are expected to be all but invisible here, and intraparty strife is likely to be absent at the convention hall, the First Union Center, a modern, multipurpose arena south of downtown.
Sen. John McCain, who was Bush's strongest primary challenger, addressed a shadow convention here designed to promote issues that, the sponsors say, both major parties are ignoring. The Arizona Republican used his remarks to call for Bush's election in November, prompting many in the audience to respond with angry boos and hisses.
Out on the humid streets of this heavily Democratic city, several thousand demonstrators protested loudly but peacefully throughout the day.
Local police put on a show of force as marchers chanted slogans advocating an array of causes, including abortion rights, gay rights, environmental protection, animal rights, campaign finance reform and opposition to a missile defense system and police brutality. Security is unusually tight at convention hotels and convention-related sites, as authorities try to head off efforts to disrupt traffic or the convention itself this week.
Before a late-afternoon thunderstorm put an end to most street activity, Cheney led the ticket's advance guard into this historic city, which was last host to a national convention 52 years ago.
'Our purpose is clear'
"Our party is united. Our purpose is clear. Our cause is just. And Gov. George Bush will be the next president of the United States," he said to cheers and a storm of confetti at a downtown hotel.
Earlier, as Cheney hit every stop on the talk-show circuit, he indicated that he would be as loyal to a President George W. Bush as Bush's father was as Reagan's vice president. He promised to keep private any policy disagreements with the president and "salute smartly" in public once Bush made a decision.
On every show, Cheney faced intense questioning about his voting record, which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said yesterday was more conservative than his own. Gingrich cited as examples Cheney's votes on environmental issues and his opposition to the creation of the federal Education Department.
Cheney contended that some of the votes were being taken out of context and said he hadn't altered his basic positions. But he added that changed circumstances, such as the federal budget surplus, might make him more willing to support spending for social programs he opposed when there were large deficits.
One of only seven congressmen to oppose a $1.6 billion measure for Alzheimer's disease research and nutrition assistance for the elderly poor in 1987, Cheney said he did so "probably because I thought it was excessive funding."
A Washington politician for most of his adult life, Cheney said that running a Dallas oil-industry business the past five years helped him understand why voters consider politics irrelevant.
He said Washington had become consumed with "debating and arguing about fine points, exchanging partisan jabs, as the Democrats are now, and never dealing with an issue that has anything to do with the future of the country."
Undeterred, Democrats will start airing a $3.5 million ad campaign in key states today attacking Cheney's votes against the Clean Water Act, Head Start and the school lunch program.
The commercials are to run in the 17 states, including Maryland, where the Democratic Party has spent more than $20 million, much of it unregulated soft money, in an effort to promote Vice President Al Gore's Democratic candidacy and undermine support for Bush.
Schedule of speakers and participants at tonight's opening of the Republican National Convention: 7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.:
House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois opens the convention.
Virginia state Del. Paul C. Harris Sr. speaks on freedom.
Mari Griego, 10, of Rio Rancho, N.M., sings the national anthem.
Invocation by Rabbi Victor Weisberg of Northbrook, Ill.
8 p.m. to 9 p.m.:
Game show host Ben Stein with a political version of "Win Ben Stein's Money."
Fourth-grade teacher Claudia Kirkley of Durham, N.C., on math and science initiatives.
Pilar Gomez of Milwaukee on involvement and empowerment.
Conna Craig of Boston, director of the Institute for Children, on adoption and foster care.
Elaine Chao of the Heritage Foundation on immigration and civil society.
Sharon Darling, president of the National Center for Family Literacy, on literacy programs.
10 p.m. to 11 p.m.:
Michael Feinberg, a Houston charter school teacher, on education.
Texas first lady Laura Bush on literacy.
Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell on community and volunteer service.
Tomorrow's speakers include: Everett Alvarez Jr. of Rockville, first U.S. aviator shot down and taken prisoner by North Vietnam; Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, the only openly gay Republican in Congress; Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush's chief foreign policy adviser; Elizabeth Dole, former Cabinet secretary; former Sen. Bob Dole; retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf; Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska; and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.