It's a political party's big chance to capture America's attention and show what it has to offer. The Republican National Convention held Aug. 12-15 in San Diego was meant to introduce candidate Bob Dole to America, boost momentum for his campaign, and improve his public relations stature. Efforts to reinforce party platforms and messages through a parade of speakers, interviews and television shots underscores that the convention was all about image -- just as the Democratic National Convention, which kicks off tonight in Chicago, will be. Since the show was made for TV viewers, it had to be staged, prepared and presented with no mistakes, chock full of entertainment for the critical viewing audience at home. After all, as some newshounds say, party conventions don't really generate much news these days. There's no surprise, no controversy, no drama. So the Republicans created some. But did they portray a clear, positive image? Building an Image "People need to understand this was not a convention but defined for TV...everything was very well rehearsed and extremely contrived with no spontaneity at all," says Kayla Thompson, group CEO of the Jefferson Group West in Denver. She says that the excitement used to be on the floor, but the real action is now behind the scenes. Everything from the order of speakers to the people interviewed on the floor point to images the Republicans want to portray. Thompson says the Republicans tried to overcome their white-male member image, but didn't quite succeed. "There was a lack of diversity among nationality, and the few exceptions that were there, were placed in the front row." At the convention, a network correspondent interviewed a gay, black Massachusetts delegate, asking him if he felt lonely. The delegate's response was just the opposite, that the party was making him feel included and welcome. While the media said the convention was closed and controlled, E. Bruce Harrison, chairman of E. Bruce Harrison PR firm in Washington, D.C., said he felt that it was open, direct and easy to understand. Even though it was staged, those who planned it staged it properly for television, Harrison said. Most importantly, the two key messages that Dole portrayed were: 'I will protect you' and 'I am trustworthy,' which is what the American people want to hear. A possible solution to Dole's low popularity with women voters was pro-posed in Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), pro-choice keynote speaker at the convention on Tuesday night. Throughout her speech, TV cameos and mentions of her newborn daughter growing up in a chaotic country told the audience that Bob Dole does care about women and children. The ever-popular Colin Powell talked up the crowd, and confronted suspicions that the party is divided, by saying that Republicans are strong and large enough in number to disagree on some things, yet work toward the same goals. Going For a Strategy Howard Rubenstein, president of his own PR firm in New York, says that the Republicans humanized Dole, who's no longer a "stiff, cardboard candidate," and Dole successfully adopted the image. "Certain things were ingenious, like having Colin Powell speak and Elizabeth Dole go into the audience like Oprah (Winfrey)...whoever masterminded the imagemaking should be praised for his/her professionalism," he says. One of the masterminds is part-time adviser to the Republican National Convention, Michael Deaver, the PR specialist who worked on many of Ronald Reagan's events and speeches, and helped stage the 1984 Republican convention. Deaver's challenge, according to The Wall Street Journal, was "to capture the attention of millions of voters who demonstrate less and less interest in politics generally and almost no interest in the 73-year-old Mr. Dole specifically." Improvements at the '96 convention were designed to make the hall seem more interactive and exciting, so networks would want to air it, and voters would want to watch it. Speeches were limited to 10 minutes each, with the exception of Bob Dole's acceptance speech; the podium was made smaller; the speakers surprised and moved the audience; and the hall set up TV screens for viewers. Creativity and content were essential at the convention, since technically, there was no hard news story there. Many now await the Democratic National Convention, which is expected to be just as colorful and drama-packed as the Republicans'. Following a whistle-stop train tour, the convention will begin in Chicago tonight, where Bill Clinton and his team will attempt to outshine the Republicans. Will the Democrats succeed, if only to gain a temporary jump in the polls? "The Republican Convention was fluff...good packaging, but there was no party representing the images to back it up," says Patricia Bario, head of a PR firm in Washington, D.C. "I think the Democratic Convention will also be packaged well, but there will be a real party behind it," she says. (Jefferson Group West, 303/837-1110; E. Bruce Harrison and Associates, 202/638-1200; Howard Rubenstein and Associates, 212/843-8000; Patricia Bario and Associates, 202/543-0923)

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