Republican Convention in Houston / Convention Diary: Houston fights to keep control

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IN TEXAS, they like to do things BIG] And so it promises to be for this week's convention. BIG venue - the giant Astrodome, home to the Astros baseball and Oilers football teams - BIG spectacular, BIG welcome and, by the end, MEGA-BIG headache for us all.

It began even as the Independent team and other assorted conventioneers stepped off the plane, sending a cacophony of cheering and bell-ringing right down the jet-way and into First Class - a 'welcoming committee' awaited us just inside the terminal.

Eyes ahead, the most British among us strode straight through the wall of pumping hands and prairie-wide smiles with stiff-upper-lip cool. One gate down, passengers from Chicago were greeted by a giant pink elephant and Texas survival kits with tips on the local lingo.

Nothing comes much BIGGER than the elephant, the official mascot of the Grand Old Party. The largest spotted so far is in the lobby of the Hyatt hotel: an 11ft, 227lb monster made entirely of dark and white chocolate. Delegates from Texas, accommodated on the west side of town in the Holiday Inn, are being entertained by a real live 3,500lb elephant that waves flags and plays the harmonica.

Nor is Houston a humble spot. Fifty miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and built on a swamp, the greater metropolitan area covers no less than 581 square miles, larger than Rhode Island. With the size comes one of the BIGGEST problems of the week - transport. A massive shuttle bus operation will carry delegates and convention guests distances of up to 35 miles to and from their hotels through what promises to be the mother of all snarl-ups.

Paul Klepper, a retired Marine colonel, who is manning the city's traffic flow control room, calls it his 'war room', because, he says, 'managing traffic and transportation for this convention is going to be a war'.

The local enforcement community is also ready for battle, apparently. The Texas National Guard has been put on alert in case of an invasion by 'enemy forces', defined in the official draft notice as 'gangs and dissident citizens' - presumably a reference to those wishing to protest against Republican positions on, say, abortion and gay rights.

Guardsmen, it goes on, should be dressed for combat: 'Although the body armour and face shields are of little practical value, they do have a great image impact and should be used.' But there is a warning about adding to congestion with armoured cars. 'The use of track vehicles . . . is discouraged because of poor public relations.'

And then there is the Astrodome itself, for those who actually make it there. BIG it is, with a single-span roof of 642 feet and the height to accommodate a 15-storey building. The Madison Square Garden in New York, where the Democrats held their party shindig last month, is a pimple by comparison.

And inside, the Republicans have made all their convention props BIGGER too. Sausage- shaped nets of balloons, like giant prophylactics threatening to explode, dangle from the ceiling. The platform - it had to be BIG to seize attention in so vast a space - features two video walls, each made up of 49 television screens.

The Astros, meanwhile, who would normally be playing here as the basketball season nears its climax, are on the BIGGEST countrywide tour in the sport's history, taking in 26 away games in 28 days.

For the Republicans, though, there is one thing that really must be BIG but cannot be guaranteed in advance - even by millions of Texas dollars and the indoor firework display that is planned at the end of it all: the popularity bounce so desperately needed by President Bush.