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Stuart Rothenberg: GOP convention isn't exactly what it seems

PHILADELPHIA (CNN) -- In at least a couple of respects, the nature of the 2000 Republican National Convention can be summed up by the Thursday night appearance of the Philadelphia Boys Choir. I watched the vocal group "rehearse" yesterday on the podium steps.

The choir, made up of boys and men outfitted in snazzy blue or red jackets, sings a beautiful rendition of the Lion King's most memorable song, "The Circle of Life." But, like a lot of what you see at any convention, the emphasis is on time management and predictability, not spontaneity.

You see, the choir lip-syncs the song. They pre-recorded it a few days ago in what one of the singers described to me as "a cool auditorium."

So, like everything else here, the Philadelphia Boys Choir's performance isn't exactly what it seems.

By now, everyone knows that this isn't an old-fashioned political convention. Little real business is being done. Instead, this convention is a heavily scripted showcase of moderation, tolerance, inclusiveness, political correctness, multiculturalism and empathy. You half expect the convention "chairpersons" to be Phil Donohue and Oprah Winfrey.

Think of the 2000 Republican Convention as a four night, made-for-television mini-series (albeit one without any drama), and you'll better appreciate what's happening. The Republicans (and the Democrats, in a couple of weeks) are producing a flawless television extravaganza, and that means making sure that there are no glitches or goofs.

But what makes all of this slightly phony is that Republican officials continue to talk about this convention as if it were about issues and policies, and about a new direction for the country. It isn't. It's as much about continuity as it is about change, and it seeks to convey a sense of the party's heart, not it's legislative agenda.

Of course, soon-to-be-nominee George W. Bush has offered policy proposals dealing with Social Security, education, taxes and national security. And the party platform isn't devoid of substance. But this convention, more than most others, is about "feeling."

I don't blame the Republicans entirely for this. The Democrats will do the same thing when their Los Angeles extravaganza rolls around, and President Clinton bears some responsibility for elevating form over substance. He's always at his best when he is biting his lip or lowering his voice to show emotion.

Television and the American public also bear some responsibility. The medium is better suited to vapid, mindless sentimentality than to the discussion of issues and priorities. And voters seem to prefer a glimpse into people's souls and hearts than into their brains. If you doubt that, just compare the ratings for CBS's hit show "Survivor" with PBS' "NewsHour."

Come to think of it, Los Angeles will be worse. We'll have to put up with more self-important "celebrities" who consider themselves great thinkers because they once had lunch with Arianna Huffington.

Reporters have been grumbling for weeks about the convention, but if the Republicans figured that they could totally eliminate confrontation, they were wrong. Members of the media covering the Philadelphia lovefest are still going to talk about abortion and about the strain between the Religious Right and the Wall Street crowd, as they try to get below the veneer of GOP unity.

Democrats have good reason to complain that the Republicans are presenting an image of their party that is misleading. Looking at the convention's schedule, you'd think this is a party with a sizable African-American constituency, as well as one in which women and blind mountain climbers play a leading role.

But conventions are not about what a party is as much as what it wants to be, and the GOP is going out of its way to try to appeal to voters who have traditionally felt more comfortable with the Democratic Party. That's a wise thing to do, even if it doesn't make for exciting television or interesting reading.