Powell rallies the troops against Clinton

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The Independent Online
Their image of moderation and compassion burnished by a bravura performance from reluctant megastar Colin Powell, the Republicans last night turned their fire on President Bill Clinton, all the while straining to play down the reputation for intolerance that has cost them so dear in recent months.

Halfway through its nominating convention the party has, by common consent, largely succeeded in its key objective of banishing memories of the 1992 gathering in Houston, whose harsh and divisive tone contributed to the downfall of George Bush. San Diego, by contrast, has been sweetness and light, epitomised by General Powell on Monday evening.

Winding up an emotionalpageant of ex-presidents and a tearful tribute by Nancy Reagan to her husband, incapacitated by Alzheimer's disease, General Powell insisted the Republicans were pro-growth, dedicated to a strong, upright and prosperous America. "But let us never step back from compassion," he declared, "we must be firm, but we must also be fair."

Nor did he flinch from airing his differences with the stridently conservative party platform on abortion and job quotas. "You all know that I believe in a woman's right to choose and I strongly support affirmative action," he insisted to a mixture of cheers and boos. But, he added to thunderous applause, the party was "big enough to disagree on individual issues", while working together to propel Bob Dole to the White House.

That was exactly what the conference organisers wanted from the four- star general and former Joint Chiefs chairman, whose precise role at the convention had been in some doubt after his refusal to enter a 1996 presidential race many thought he could win. So too was his enthusiastic endorsement of Mr Dole who will be formally anointed by tonight's traditional roll- call vote of the states, and his veiled criticism of Mr Clinton's leadership.

Also banished thus far - insofar as possible - are the harder edges of the Republican Revolution of 1994, symbolised by the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, now the least popular national politician in America. Though he is permanent chairman of the convention and was a speaker last night, Mr Gingrich has scarcely been in evidence here.

Nor has Ralph Reed, director of the Christian Coalition and leading spokesman for the religious right, which played a key role in the Republican recapture of Congress two years ago. Meanwhile, Pat Buchanan, right-wing scourge of Mr Dole during the primaries and the dark prince of Houston 1992, has fulfilled his appointed role of being seen but not heard.

After his written endorsement of the Dole/Kemp ticket on Monday, Mr Buchanan emerged on the convention floor to listen to General Powell, but saying nothing that would rock the Dole boat as the candidate struggles to erase Mr Clinton's commanding lead in the polls.

Instead, just as the organisers intended, the 12,000-strong media contingent in San Diego has been denied a whiff of real controversy. Instead, the country has been presented with a brisk and seamless production stressing party unity, tailored not for the 2,000 predominantly conservative delegates in the hall but the millions watching proceedings at home. "Better dull than divisive," the New York Times wrote of the guiding strategy of the convention.

Even the abuse expected to be heaped on President Clinton last night, on topics from his alleged character defects to issues like health care, crime and the economy, was unlikely to change that judgement. The coveted job of delivering the keynote speech that would cap the night has been entrusted to the 38-year-old New York Congresswoman Susan Molinari, a self-described "perky blonde" who symbolises the moderate suburban woman who has been abandoning the party in droves because of its harsh line on abortion and other social issues.

Ms Molinari, mother of a three-month-old daughter, is one of the party's brightest rising stars. She is everything Mr Dole is not - naturally telegenic, constantly smiling, in touch with youth culture, even a confessed "experimenter" with marijuana. Though pro-choice, she was expected to skirt the abortion issue, focusing on taxes and the economy.

Earlier on Monday, two ex-presidents delivered harsh criticism of Mr Clinton. Gerald Ford recalled his self-deprecating line upon being thrown into the presidency in 1974, that he was "a Ford, not a Lincoln" but described the current incumbent as "a convertible Dodge". Then Mr Bush spoke of his "heartbreak" at how the White House had been "demeaned" since he left office, and paid glowing tribute to his wife, Barbara, "the most popular woman in the USA" - a pointed reference to Hillary Clinton, decidedly unpopular and at the centre of endless Whitewater-related controversy.