Rarely in American political history has such a gathering been so minutely choreographed, and even before it started the first signs of the traditional convention "bounce" were already showing - thanks not least to the candidate's universally applauded choice of Jack Kemp as his vice-presidential running mate.
Two polls yesterday suggest President Clinton's previous 20-point lead had halved, with or without a run by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, whose new Reform Party is choosing its first presidential candidate this week. One poll, by CNN/USA Today, found fully a quarter of all voters "more likely" to support the Republicans now that Mr Kemp had joined the fray. "People are finally starting to pay attention," said Haley Barbour, the Republican party chairman.
How long the surge lasts is anyone's guess. But from conservative and liberal Republicans alike the watchword was unity. The fractious party is determined to seize full advantage from what amounts to a weeklong, free prime-time advertising slot to sell itself to voters. Virtually every wrinkle of dissent has been ironed out of the programme, and now even Mr Buchanan, who harried Mr Dole throughout the primary campaign, is ready for peace of a sorts.
Mr Buchanan's populist far-right crusade for the nomination formally ended on Sunday evening here in Escondido, 30 miles north of San Diego, at a gala rally for 1,500 supporters, cheering and chanting in the auditorium of the California Center for the Arts, ringed by police and fenced off like a top security military base.
As gay and pro-immigrant demonstrators staged a noisy rally outside, the commentator and one-time Nixon and Reagan speechwriter made clear he would not break from the Republican party, and asked for a "temporary truce, a truce of San Diego", to defeat the common enemy of Bill Clinton and "Prince Albert" Gore.
Tearful, his voice cracking with emotion, Mr Buchanan told his followers that while they had lost the battle, they were winning the war. America did not need a third party: "Our rivals may be waving from the podium, but before our eyes the Republican party is becoming a Buchanan party," he said, hailing the conservative language of the party platform on abortion, immigration and foreign policy, which the 1,990 convention delegates approved yesterday.
"The old order is passing away... One day the stone the builders rejected will become the cornerstone," Mr Buchanan insisted to shouts of "Go, Pat, Go" from an audience clearly itching for the year 2000 and a chance to resume the next presidential campaign struggle.
But for the time being Mr Buchanan will not rock the boat, as yesterday he finally issued an endorsement of the Dole/Kemp ticket - although he will not be permitted to address the convention proper to bestow his personal blessing.
Last night he was expected to attend proceedings as an ordinary spectator, permitting the organisers to press on with their scripted spectacular. The one real distraction is the spat with Pete Wilson, Governor of California and former mayor of San Diego, denied a major speaking appearance because of his backing for abortion rights.
But the argument was quickly forgotten as a pantheon of party heroes was rolled out for the first night, in a section designed to highlight "Individual leadership and integrity", led by former Presidents Bush and Ford and topped by Colin Powell, whose 10-minute address could not but remind that he might well today be in Mr Dole's place had he not decided against a White House run.
And no night of celebration is complete without a dash of poignancy and nostalgia, this time provided by the greatest hero of all in modern Republicanism - Ronald Reagan. But for the first time in 20 years the man himself will not be attending a convention.
Last night delegates made do with a video and a speech from Nancy Reagan, in which she conveyed greetings from her husband, now 85 and suffering from Alzheimer's disease.Reuse content