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Inside Politics

Lights, camera, action: Dems ready for close-up

Political conventions have all the trappings of Broadway

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

THE MORNING GRIND
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CONVENTION FACTS

Location: Boston's FleetCenter, seats 19,600

Estimated attendees: 35,000

• Estimated budget: $95 million, revised; original estimate was $49.5 million

• Delegates: 4,353 (611 alternates)

• Volunteers: 14,000

• Hotel rooms used: 17,000
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It's not "The Phantom of the Opera,"' but when the Democrats open their national convention in Boston on Monday they will be putting on a production every bit as choreographed and rehearsed as a Broadway show.

The plot is written -- the theme is pitch John Kerry to voters -- the stars have practiced their lines, the elaborate stage is set, and the chorus (some 4,353 delegates and 611 alternates) will be there to provide a rousing backup. (Special Report: America Votes 2004, the Democratic convention)

Unlike political conventions of years past, there is little power brokering at these modern-day affairs. Kerry is all but assured of his coronation, and his selection of a running mate, John Edwards, is old news.

Convention organizers have planned down to the minute the list of speakers, and protesters (think hecklers) are being kept outside the main venue. (Gallery: Convention eve in pictures)

"I call them infomercials," said CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider. "They're like a late-night show that's trying to sell you a hair-care product."

In this case, the product is the Kerry-Edwards ticket, the Democrats' answer to the prospect of four more years of Bush-Cheney.

"Well, we think the convention is a great opportunity for people to learn more about John Kerry and John Edwards," said Jeanne Shaheen, the Kerry campaign chairwoman.

"And, you know, we're looking at some broad themes for the convention, stronger at home, respected in the world, and looking at -- at how John Kerry's career and life experiences play into those themes."

Convention organizers don't like the idea of comparing the convention to a show. "This is not a theatrical production," insisted Lina Garcia, a spokeswoman for the convention. "The purpose of this convention is to showcase the next president of the United States, John Kerry and his vision for a stronger America."

But there are undeniably show-biz elements to modern political conventions. Count on a glossy, homespun biographical film extolling Kerry. Don't be surprised by some special effects. Indoor pyrotechnics have become a feature of some recent conventions, and the balloon and confetti drops have become bigger and bigger.

Sit back and enjoy musical acts by the likes of Patti LaBelle, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, the Black Eyed Peas and Carole King. And read about celebrities rubbing elbows with politicians at the many receptions that will accompany the four-day convention.

Need further proof of the theatrical elements of a political convention? Consider that some leading media outlets send their theater critics to help with the coverage.

Frank Rich did just that in 1992 when he was the chief theater critic for The New York Times. Dispatched to Madison Square Garden in New York City for the Democratic gathering, Rich said he wondered how much fodder he could find at a political convention. He need not have worried.

Within a short time, he ran into director Gary Smith, the man behind that year's Tony Awards. It turns out he was the director -- yes, there is a director -- for the Democratic National Convention.

"In between, he had done Pia Zadora's act in Vegas," Rich, now a columnist for the Times, recalled.

Rich believes the conventions have become too polished with no signs of spontaneity or political power struggles. Television networks, in fact, have cut back on their planned coverage of the conventions. "The fact is there is no news," Rich said.

The conventions are clearly made-for-television productions. The top acts are slated for prime-time speaking slots, and a sweeping 90-by-17-foot video screen will project their images across the globe.

Although convention viewership has declined over the years, Schneider said the conventions remain immensely important to the political parties.

"They're selling something," Schneider said. "And the convention is the last chance they get to have the undivided attention of a national audience."

OK, so political conventions can be thought of as theatrical productions. But is it good theater?

Ask the critic.

"You know the cliche that politics is Hollywood for ugly people," Rich said. "Political conventions are sort of showmanship for people whose idea of great entertainment is the Gridiron. If you think the Gridiron is equal to Radio City Music Hall in its heyday, then you'll probably find the conventions somewhat entertaining."


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