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Inside Politics

Making the most of the festivities

GOP candidates look beyond convention

By Greg Botelho

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Do you think having New York as the convention venue will help or hinder Republicans?

NEW YORK (CNN) -- They may be big names back home, but at this week's convention many top Republicans will cede the limelight to President Bush while busying themselves networking, raising money and energizing themselves for their own campaigns.

At Madison Square Garden and the Essex House hotel, National Republican Senatorial Committee convention headquarters, several GOP Senate hopefuls said they felt promoting Bush would help them come November.

That belief particularly resonates in states such as South Dakota, Alaska, South Carolina and Oklahoma, which Bush all won handily in 2000 and Republican candidates are now engaged in competitive races.

But the convention also poses potential problems. The party platform, passed Monday morning, contains socially conservative language that could hurt, by association, GOP candidates in some moderate voters' minds.

Moreover, being at the convention may make it more imperative that candidates counter views held by prominent party members -- be they moderate speakers or the conservative base -- or the Bush administration that may not play well in their own campaigns.

"These are all capable, intelligent individuals and their stances take into the best interests of their particular states," said NRSC chair and Virginia Sen. George Allen of the party's Senate candidates. "We're not making any effort to show any differences with the White House, but they certainly have a right to do so."

The toughest issue for candidates likely isn't whether the New York convention hurts their chances, but whether it's worth the time.

Neither Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski nor Rep. Tom Coburn, the Republican candidate in the tough Oklahoma Senate race, ventured east for the GOP convention.

The festivities fall relatively late in the election season, leaving campaigns two months to formulate strategy, build campaign teams and grassroots efforts and reach the voters that count -- those in their home states, not GOP delegates and guests in New York.

"I am actually amazed how many candidates came up," said Allen, noting that he was grateful the Republican Party let several Senate candidates address delegates Monday morning -- an offer that he didn't have when he attended the 2000 GOP convention just before his first Senate election.

For those in New York, the convention marks an opportunity to be seen and heard -- and, if possible, enjoy the festivities.

Rep. Jim DeMint, who will face off with Democrat Inez Tenenbaum to fill Sen. Fritz Holling's seat, calls the convention a "pep rally, ... a way to synthesize our issues on a national stage."

"I'm here being part of the team and associating myself with anyone who will have me," said DeMint.

Long road ahead

While advertisements and accusations have been flying for months in the presidential race, in many cases the congressional races have barely begun.

For Rep. George Nethercutt, nothing is official until Washington state holds its primary September 14. While Bush and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry have been sparring rhetorically for months, Nethercutt said most congressional races are just starting and that voters likely won't make up their minds for several weeks, if not months.

The convention, he says, gives him a chance to return the favor for the support offered by Bush, the NRSC and other Republicans, as well as branch out on a national stage.

"I was honored to be invited to speak -- that's really why I'm here," said Nethercutt. "And I felt it was important for Washington state to have a powerful voice nationally from this venue, as well as other venues, and to hear our point of view."

Brewery baron Pete Coors, a few weeks removed from his tough Colorado primary win over former Rep. Bob Schaffer, admits his team is "just starting" on his general election campaign.

"We haven't been able to do much now, so when we get back from the convention we will dig down and go to work," he said.

But Coors, who had never before run for public office, says coming to New York has been worthwhile. The convention, he says, gives him "more exposure and opportunities to learn from other candidates and constituents, meet people who have been offering advice to our campaign, support our state delegation and raise money."

Convention as campaign boost

Most of Coors' convention activities are behind-the-scenes. But in some cases, events and actions tied to the convention play into a candidate's own campaign.

This week, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle -- a favorite GOP target -- began running a commercial that showed him hugging Bush and aligning himself with the president's war on terror. The move drew the ire of former Rep. John Thune, Daschle's GOP challenger in the tight South Dakota Senate race.

"The fact he is doing this at the very time the Republican convention is going on tells me that his political situation is becoming very difficult," said Thune. "The Daschle campaign is very desperate right now."

Several GOP Senate contenders -- including Thune, Coors and DeMint -- did make news by delivering speeches at Madison Square Garden. Those came on Monday morning, far from prime time and with the hall sometimes only half full, but nonetheless gave them a chance to introduce and ingratiate themselves with fellow Republicans, especially party power brokers.

In their speeches, the candidates praised Bush -- the top Republican and, in many cases, the presidential favorite in their own states.

"I think my coattails will help the president a little bit," joked DeMint, noting that "South Carolina is Bush country."

But realistically, the candidates realize the convention and presidential race have only limited importance in their own campaigns.

"We've got a great line-up, and I think people want to have a team to vote for in some respects," said Nethercutt. "I also think it's exciting that the president and Senate Republican campaign committee have devoted time and energy to my campaign. But ultimately, this race is between [Democratic Sen.] Patty Murray and me."

If nothing else, the Senate hopefuls say they hope being surrounded by supportive, like-minded and enthusiastic Republicans will boost their own spirits.

"When you see people around the country who see things the same way you do, it will create a lot of energy," said DeMint. "And believe me, you need energy at this point."

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