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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Stage set for Republican drama

By Stephen Evans
BBC correspondent in New York

There does not seem to be much doubt that this coming week will produce marvellous theatre.

New York during the Republican National Convention will be a paradise for the student of human life and Americana.

Stagehands at the Republican National Convention
Stagehands prepare for the Republican National Convention

There will be delicious clashes of culture: Republicans crowding Democratic New York; Middle America rubbernecking around the big city; Washington's power-brokers sweeping in.

Now, if you live in New York, you view yourself as living in the real capital of the United States, not to mention the world.

We have heard of Washington - it is on the news - but we have a disdain for it.

It is full of earnest young men who seem to have been born aged 35, all with tidy haircuts and well-shined shoes. Humour is not their strength.

They wear crisp suits and ties when it is 35C (95F) and 100% humidity, which, of course, it always is.

Off-duty, as it were, some of them wear polo shirts, ironed polo shirts, no less, with the logo of a bank on them or a defence company or their law school.

If they wore jeans, they would iron them too.

To New Yorkers, Washington - or at least, white, powerful Washington - is a town - there's the sneer - full of lawyers and lobbyists.

It is, we accept, the nexus of power, but New York is the nexus of glitz and style, not to mention money.

Washington is about wheeling and dealing. New York is about argument - argument in public.

Washington purrs - New York snarls.

I think the best vantage point to observe this pageant of diversity will be a stool at any chic bar in Chelsea, just a wander down Eighth Avenue from the convention.

How will straight Washington (or straight Topeka, Kansas) - straight, I should say, as in serious, uptight, careful - cope with gay Chelsea, gay as in gay. Actually, they may get along just fine.

Politicians tend to pigeonhole people but, who knows, maybe the cultures will embrace rather than clash.

It would be truly joyous if there were surprises, if people behaved out of stereotype.

No-go areas

It will be a tough job, though. The convention organisers are trying to minimise the leeway for straying.

Some Broadway shows, for example, are not deemed suitable for delegates.

Anti-Bush protester
Anti-Bush protesters could cause problems for the Democrats

The tourist board here has taken a show called Naked Boys Singing off the list of productions offered to delegates at a discount, apparently because the Republican Party's Committee on Arrangements objected.

Much will be out of bounds for different groups next week.

Where will the demonstrators go to, for example? Perhaps to Central Park, despite a ban, perhaps to the Convention Centre, but in what humour we simply do not know.

Will New York 2004 be a re-run of Chicago, 1968 when a riot changed a nation's consciousness?

Democrats must be dreading the pictures, violent or not. They will not want unhelpful images and pictures of protesters in New York conjuring up for some in Middle America a vision of an intellectual (not a compliment), godless, anti-American elite, far removed from the Heartland, as it is put, of "real America".

Even without violence, rallies on gay rights/abortion rights/welfare rights for poor people/civil rights may send a message not displeasing to Mr Bush and the Republican election strategists.

All told, the police have issued permits for 29 rallies, ranging from a prayer vigil of 40 people outside the convention in Madison Square Garden to 250,000 on Sunday.

Cost of safety

Clearly, security is tight. It will cost about $60m (32m), which equates to $15m (8m) per day.

The Secret Service is drafting in agents from all over the United States. There will be 37,000 officers from the New York Police Department, 10,000 of them in the immediate vicinity of the conference centre.

Seven helicopters and 26 police launches will be used. There will be 181 bomb-sniffing dogs.

NYPD Emergency Services Unit
Across the street from Madison Square Garden, police officers have begun to stand guard

Now, nobody can doubt that of all the targets on the planet next week, the Republican National Convention will be at the top of any evil-doers' list.

The atmosphere, though, may also help Mr Bush as he builds up to Thursday's speech.

A few days ago, I wandered around the site and you could feel the tension. Police officers move you on for no apparent reason - there now seem to be more security guards in New York than yellow cabs.

It all fuels an atmosphere - and with 11 September barely a week after Mr Bush's speech, the picture of a vigilant leader in dangerous times will be clear.

Another message will come from the convention. Many of the peak-time speakers are from the moderate wing of the Republican Party - people like Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, the star of the show until prime-time Thursday evening, until about 10 o'clock on the East Coast here, seven in the West, when the lights dim and Mr Bush emerges.

He will walk down a long catwalk to a podium in the centre. Despite the audience of many thousands, it will seem like an intimate theatre-in-the-round with Mr Bush not remote on a stage, but in the middle among his people, and by implication among the American people.

He is a marvellous political performer, speaking the language of ordinary people, connecting with them, connecting with the television cameras.

This country is now polarised between those who are solid for him and those who say "Anybody but Bush".

There are unusually few undecided voters this election. So when Mr Bush speaks in the great arena of Madison Square Garden, everything before will seem like mere diversion.

Big politics will have taken over - big politics about nothing less than which direction the world takes. Now that is drama.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 August, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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