The US Presidential Elections: Convention Diary: Taxi tips and parties galore

IN FOUR days of stage-managed frenzy, delegates will know it's time to show maximum ardour when the red, white and blue balloons descend from the rafters of Madison Square Garden. This year, at least two made-for-television balloon-drops can be expected: tomorrow night when the votes are in to nominate Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and on Thursday night after the eagerly awaited Clinton acceptance speech.

They say there are 60,000 balloons up there straining for freedom, inflated by 20 gas tanks. Other pointless statistics? In and around the the Garden there are 4,928 delegates, 13,500 reporters, 500 walkie-talkies, 25,000 miniature American flags and 1,843 folding chairs. And one possible future president. The agonising continues over the stand-offish approach taken by the television networks. The big three have cut live coverage of convention business this time. Only CNN and the no-frills C-Span channels are offering exhaustive live coverage, with edited highlights available on most other stations, including New York's Comedy Central, which is airing Indecision '92 for two hours nightly. Still, with 75 trailers, many crowned with satellite dishes, and 205 stations represented, television remains king of the convention.

For those not equipped with the passes necessary to penetrate the Garden (or simply without the stamina to queue for an hour to pass through the metal detectors), there is plenty to see outside. Fringe events include the chance to dunk your least favourite candidate - actually brave volunteers wearing plastic masks - into giant tanks of cold water for a dollar. Dan Quayle has made the biggest splash so far, though Ross Perot may be edging up on him. Or you could trade moans with Dan Martino of Tennessee who is sweatily pacing the steps outside the Garden wearing a sandwich board with the message, 'God is a Republican' in protest against Democrat liberalism on abortion and gay rights.

That other Tennessean in town, Al Gore, is drawing special attention since his selection last week by Bill Clinton as his running, and occasional jogging, mate. Loew's Hotel on Lexington Avenue was forced to move the Tennessee delegation from a penthouse suite to the main ballroom to allow for all that extra hand-shaking with Mr Gore. He and his wife were greeted at the hotel with a rendition of the Tennessee Waltz and a gargantuan cake, decorated with the message: 'Welcome, Tennessee. Bill and Al's Excellent Journey'. The media gaze has focused, or rather re-focused, on Mr Clinton's real mate, Hillary. Savaged earlier in the campaign after making ill-judged remarks about not wanting to be a stay-at-home who bakes cookies, Mrs Clinton is obviously striving to soften her hard- bitten image. Not content with entering a 'bake-off' contest with Barbara Bush sponsored by Family Circle magazine, she has arranged for friends to hand out her own special-recipe cookies on the convention floor.

For many delegates, this may be their first visit to 'duh big city', and they are being submerged in handy hints on how not to get murdered or mugged. Guides on New York street wisdom include valuable advice on riding the yellow taxis. 'When a cab stops,' the brochure helpfully suggests, 'you should first get in it.' It goes on: 'Once you are in the taxi, tell the driver where you want to go.' Armed with that information, everyone should be just fine. The guide overlooks the fact that with the expected traffic around the Garden this week, the taxi is unlikely to move.

Convention time is also party time. About 100 bashes a day are expected during the week, in some of the city's most exclusive clubs and restaurants. Outside the Garden, delegates are allowed to forget the convention slogan flashing on the video wall: 'People First.' The fun started at the weekend with a memorial party for JFK at Gracie Mansion, causing jealousy and disappointment among those not invited. Even a distinctly left- of-centre do for Nation magazine down in Greenwich Village drew round-the-block queues. Still eschewing the limo scene, the failed candidate Jerry Brown opted to hold an all-comer picnic in Central Park.

An unlikely guest at an all-star breakfast in the Waldorf-Astoria on Sunday was Bob Strauss, US ambassador to Moscow, a Bush appointee. Did the President know what his envoy was doing while on leave? 'He knows,' Mr Strauss replied. 'Anyway, he didn't invite me to his convention.' Soviet ambassadors used to rush home for Central Committee meetings. Does Mr Strauss harbour hopes of a future embrace from the Democrat comrades?

(Photograph omitted)

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