In G.O.P. Big Tent, the Hillary-Haters Obey the Gag Order

” Who ?” asked New York State Republican chairman Bill Powers.

The Observer was playing Clinton-era word association on the floor of the Republican National Convention at the First Union Center in Philadelphia. That is to say, one was walking up to Grand Old Party animals of various degrees of notoriety, nobility and nuttiness and asking for the first word or phrase that popped into mind at the mention of the name “Bill Clinton” or “Hillary Rodham Clinton” or “Al Gore.”

As befits any G.O.P. gathering, the place was crawling with symbolic pachyderms: elephants set in rhinestone and pinned onto lapels; elephants cut out of red, white and blue felt and plopped onto unashamed heads; elephants printed onto T-shirts and neckties and posters. But by far the biggest elephant in the place was a white one, and no one was pointing, let alone screaming, at it: the chemical contempt in which the party of Lincoln still holds the man from Hope and (to their minds) his band of enablers, and the visceral level at which they view Philadelphia as a convention about redemption.

Just how visceral?

“The emphasis of the convention is not on Bill Clinton,” said Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee. “It is on a particularly unique vision for the country that Bush has.”

Oh.

Of course, it took very little pulling to extract anti-Clinton sentiment from the rank and file. But it did take some-and that fact in itself said something about the convention and the campaign from this point forward.

What it said, in a phrase, was: “Let them freak.”

They, of course, are the Democrats, and to hear the Bushies tell it, the Dems are acting like a bunch of nervous wrecks; as witness the hysteria over the Congressional record of former Secretary of Defense and current Vice Presidential pick Dick Cheney.

“They should have applauded Cheney,” said a Bush adviser. “It would have validated later criticism. Instead, they’ve completely validated attacks on Gore’s Congressional record. It’s how snakes react when cornered.”

By contrast, there was nothing cornered-feeling about the convention. Then again, there was nothing particularly awe-inspiring, either. It was just fine-and that was the point.

“Let the Democrats fulminate; let their candidate foam at the mouth,” the whole event was saying. “We want to be the grownups in this race-but definitely grownups of the cool, no-curfew kind.”

“We’re Republican, but they’re nasty,” was the unspoken, or slightly spoken, undercurrent. “We’re conservative, but they’re nuts.”

For all the talk of this convention as a plagiarism of the Democratic presentational playbook-the multiracial tableaux; the true-life testimonials; the language of inclusion and outreach and so on-it is perhaps the reversal of the parties’ familiar roles with respect to extremism that has been the least remarked. But if the Bush team can make it stick, it may be the most poisonous piece of plagiarism yet served up to the Gore candidacy-or, for that matter, to that of Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York. After all, the Clinton Presidency was dramatically saved, not once but twice, by the successfully implanted (and extravagantly G.O.P.-aided) notion that the Republicans are a bunch of mean, divisive wackos who would rather extract their eye for an eye than get anything done for the country. It was the insistently drawn contrast between their zealotry and his industry that saved Bill Clinton after the disaster of the Congressional races in 1994, and that saved him from the impeachment hellfires of 1998. This is why, months ago, upon the entry of Representative Rick Lazio in the Senate race, Mrs. Clinton tried immediately to tar him as a right-wing extremist; and it is also why, upon the selection of Mr. Cheney, Mr. Gore tried immediately to tar him as a … right-wing extremist. But what once worked like a charm, the current evidence would suggest, now works like a broken bicycle chain.

There are a variety of reasons for this, but the one connected to the convention is this: Republicans, led by Governor George W. Bush, have beaten them to the love-in.

Meanwhile, the Democrats, led by Al Gore, have run right to the shooting range.

As political conventions go, this one looked classically bright, with the usual fallopian tubes of balloons waiting to fall from the ceiling. But it felt unusually loose, as if, for all its scripted efficiency, it still was wearing its shirt untucked.

From the look of things on opening night, the Republicans did not want to burn the Clinton-Gore team in effigy. They wanted to drown them in obscurity-or rather, let them drown in it. It was as if the whole teeth-baring, pitchfork-brandishing throng from the impeachment days had popped a Valium, turned on a faucet and let the national bathtub fill up with a nice, lukewarm displeasure. The goal, it seems, was for that pair of filthy so-and-so’s from Little Rock and their all-too-willing successor to be submerged and succumb without the governor of Texas actually having to be in the room, let alone do anything rash.

That is how it came to pass that here, at ground zero for right-wing revenge, there wasn’t so much as a Hillary Halloween mask to be seen. (“Vote Hillary Off The Island” T-shirts were available, but they had to be purchased directly from the New York delegation’s temporary outlet on the second floor of the Warwick Hotel.) These folks were getting set to coronate a candidate who cannot win unless Americans buy the idea that the country might as well send back its current bout of peace and prosperity, like soup with a hair in it, because such crass attainments are mortally compromised if they flow from a character-contaminated source.

“They don’t have the [House impeachment] managers out there,” marveled Tom Dougherty, a 62-year-old delegate from California who thinks of an impeachment manager as a selling point. “This place would go nuts if they had those guys.… ” Meaning “nuts” in a good way.

Newt Weighs In

None of which is to say that card-carrying Clinton haters had been barred from the hall.

“Liar. Embarrassment,” said Phyllis Schlafly, 75 and still as raging as the red of her suit, which she wore beneath a “Life of the Party” vest, in response to the “Bill Clinton” query. (Hillary Clinton, however, evoked merely “somebody who is a single-minded pursuer of increasing the power of government over our lives.”)

“Corruption,” said Rev. Jerry Falwell, on Bill Clinton. The floor was getting hotter and more crowded by the minute, and the fundamentalist preacher’s face was very white and very moist, like sweating dough. “Subterfuge. Goodbye.”

Of Mrs. Clinton: “Double corruption, with a hyphen in the middle.”

Of Mr. Gore: “Loser.”

Fair enough. Such Republicans are there, they’re square, the country has gotten used to them-in fact, the Democrats have gotten used to pummeling them for profit. But what was striking now was not how uniform the Republicans were in their sentiments, but how varied.

Clinton-bashing can sound rabid, but it can also sound resigned.

“Disappointment,” said Governor George Pataki, before activating the default cassette that all politicians swallow for use as necessary; the one about education or America’s promise or something. (The governor’s right hand, Zenia Mucha, skewed slightly more toward the rabid. “Time to go,” she advised the Clintons. “Time to goooo! Disappear from our sight. America is tired of you.”)

Anti-Clintonism can even be kind of jaunty.

Asked what leapt to mind at the thought of the President, former Representative Robert Livingston, who famously resigned his seat in the House on the eve of becoming Speaker due to his own female troubles, said: “Charisma with no principle”-but he said it lightly.

On the President’s wife, Mr. Livingston said: “Less charisma with no principle”-and he said that lightly, too.

At the mention of Mr. Gore, the nearly-once-but-never Speaker made a chicken-bones-in-the-garbage-disposal kind of sound and then went off, presumably to make more money as a freshly flush lobbyist out of Washington, D.C. and New Orleans.

But what Team Gore has most to fear is the strain of the anti-Clinton virus that they least acknowledge: the strain that is symptomatically polite and measured and regretful, and therefore potentially resonant.

On the shuttle bus traveling from downtown hotels to the evening session on Day 1 of the convention, a handful of delegates from Arizona were, for unknown reasons, discussing the organ-meat preferences of their forebears. “My grandmother’s favorite breakfast was scrambled eggs and brains,” said a gentleman who turned out to be Phillip Townsend, an agricultural-chemical distributor from Zuma, Ariz. But then the conversation turned to the Clintons, and it got really unappetizing.

“Disgust,” said Mr. Townsend, at the mention of the President. It’s always a strong word, but spoken softly by a fellow who had just been thinking out loud about writing to the Philadelphia newspapers to thank the city for being so nice, it was even stronger.

“Unethical,” said Tom Smith, an Arizona state senator. “I don’t think he stands for anything.”

“We know George and Barbara Bush,” said Mr. Townsend. “I think Barbara’d smack him upside the head if he did something like that.”

“She’d be leading the charge against him!” Mr. Smith chimed in approvingly.

Oh, come on-how could you know, really know, that W. is such a paragon of trustworthiness?

“We don’t know,” admitted Mr. Townsend after a moment. “It’s like a marriage. You trust your spouse until you know you can’t.”

Ouch. The people running and attending this shindig feel that their candidate is up against an opponent whom the country already knows it cannot trust. No wonder they’re relaxed.

Hell, some of them even feel sorry for Al Gore, such as June S. Hartley, an Oregon national committeewoman who has spent 50 years in the political trenches.

Bill Clinton? “Fraud.”

Hillary Clinton? “More fraud.”

Al Gore? “Victim.”

Come again?

“Victim. Of the Clintons,” explained Ms. Hartley, who was wearing a spangled red, white and blue vest and a silvery hat that looked like a saucer about to take flight.

But it was the specter of Newt Gingrich on the rise that provided the Democrats with their broadest Republican target. And it is the specter of Newt Gingrich in decline that provides proof that that target is not so easy anymore. Old Speakers never die, they just look lost at parties. Showing up Sunday night at a College Republicans reunion in honor of top Bush adviser Karl Rove, Mr. Gingrich was treated not so much as persona non grata as persona non counta. And showing up the following evening on the convention floor, he was asked what came to his mind at the mention of either Clinton. For a split second there, one could have sworn that the molasses eyes narrowed into their familiar predatory, pre-pounce glint. But he was literally standing under the loudly painted phrase “Renewing Our Purpose-Together,” and he knew that the pouncing days are gone.

“I don’t think about it,” the once-rabid revolutionary said, and turned away.