Republicans reveal their gentler face to voters

Bush turns the manners and policies back to those of his father in a carefully-orchestrated attempt to woo the centre ground
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After weeks of intensive preparations and presentational "spin", the Republican Party's National Convention finally opened last night in a glow of empathy and good feeling more characteristic of Bill Clinton's New Democrats than traditional Republicans.

After weeks of intensive preparations and presentational "spin", the Republican Party's National Convention finally opened last night in a glow of empathy and good feeling more characteristic of Bill Clinton's New Democrats than traditional Republicans.

With warm-up acts of personal testimony of troubles overcome and political conversion, proceedings were set to culminate in speeches by Laura Bush, the aspiring president's wife, and Colin Powell, the former general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US armed forces during the Gulf War, who now heads a youth charity.

Widely ridiculed by Democrats and media pundits alike, the leitmotif of the week is"... with a purpose": Mr Bush himself is dubbed a President with a purpose; yesterday's theme - "opportunity with a purpose" - focused on education,identified in all opinion polls as a priority of Republican voters this year.

The choice of education as the opening subject and the selection of two relatively unpolitical speakers, whose popularity - at least in Mr Powell's case - extends well beyond the bounds of the Republican Party, to deliver the first night's prime-time addresses were calculated.

The title of the convention, and the platform - the official policy document - is "Renewing America's Purpose. Together."

Six years after Newt Gingrich swept Republicans into a Congressional majority on an ultra-conservative, Reaganite platform of no compromise with the forces of liberalism (and Bill Clinton), Mr Bush is doggedly turning the party back to the gentler manners and policies of his father and pre-Reagan Republicanism.

And while the delegations to this week's convention are predominantly conservative in their leanings, and white, male and middle-aged to elderly in their composition, their determination to win back the White House has made them more ideologically pliable than for many years.

The minute-by-minute stage management of the convention is directed to this one end: extending and enlivening the appeal of the Republican Party beyond the Gingrich right. Gone is what was known as the "evening of anger" when speaker after speaker lambasted the opposition as enemies with ever fiercer rhetoric. Prayers will be offered by a rabbi and a Catholic priest, as well as a Protestant pastor.

Even such touchstone issues for the religious right as abortion have been drummed out of the convention arena - by the simple tactic of leaving the existing (strongly anti-abortion) language in the platform document unchanged.

The treatment of the congressmen and women who led the impeachment drive against President Clinton in the House of Representatives offers the most graphic indication of the new tone. The heroes of impeachment - the chairman of the judiciary committee, Henry Hyde, impeachment's most telling orator, Lindsey Graham, and all those who became household names two years ago, are all banished to the sidelines. Not one will speak in television prime time (from 9pm to 11pm on the east coast; three hours earlier out west).

Many recognise that if these congressmen were given the platform, they would be greeted as heroes by this gathering. But Mr Bush, it is said, does not want to demonise Mr Clinton, lest the effort rebound - as it did in the mid-term elections two years ago.

More evidence of the drive for inclusiveness was the orchestrated leak of the news that Mr Bush had personally extended an invitation to Mary Cheney, the 31-year-old daughter of his recently named running mate, Dick Cheney, to appear with the rest of the family on the platform during his speech on Thursday night.

Such an invitation would be taken for granted, were not Ms Cheney openly gay, a woman who is on the record as saying that she joined the Coors brewery company because she had gay friends who worked there and found the conditions congenial. Ms Cheney was conspicuous by her absence on the day of her father's formal nomination: the Cheneys' other daughter, Elizabeth, 25, accompanied her parents to lunch with the Bushes.

At the weekend, it was put about that Mr Bush had "accepted" the Cheneys' daughter. His office then said: "The Governor believes Mr Cheney has a wonderful family. Being gay or lesbian is not a liability in this campaign. The Governor embraces both of Mr Cheney's daughters." The sensitivity of the issue was apparent, however, from Mrs Cheney's response in a television interview on Sunday when she was asked about Mary.

After objecting to the question, which she said was "personal", she said her daughter had never said she was gay. The question was not just personal, but highly political - and pertinent - because of the influence of the Christian right in the party as a whole and its insistence that practising homosexuality is a sin.