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Careful packaging is turning viewers off // GOP brings you Convention Lite

They make potato chips without fat these days, so it's really no surprise that they can make political conventions without politics.

If politics means human beings coming together, interacting, debating, deciding, winning and losing, then it is in short supply at the 1996 Republican National Convention.

This is perfectly fine by the leaders of the Republican Party. Their intention is to show unity, to remind people of what's wrong with President Clinton and to reintroduce Bob Dole and Jack Kemp to the nation.

So what they are running is a four-day Tony Robbins commercial. Lose 30 pounds in 30 days. Tighten your abs. Pour paint on your hood; with Republican Brand Car Wax it comes right off.

This is not a partisan criticism. The infomercial for Clinton Brand Good-For-Whatever-Ails-You Elixir starts the week after next in Chicago, and there won't be a lot of unseemly politics there either.

Haley Barbour, the Republican national chairman, good-humoredly parried questions about his convention's tone Wednesday. He could afford to be good-humored. Everything was going according to plan.

No news in San Diego? So uneventful that ABC's Nightline has gone home to Washington? "I take it as a compliment _ there's no bad news," Barbour said. "I take some reporters saying there's no news as meaning there's no bad news, no contentious controversy."

And he is right. Sure, a few people booed Colin Powell when he mentioned abortion Monday night, but they were a droplet compared to the ocean of cheers when he called for party unity.

Susan Molinari gave a friendly, energetic keynote speech. Nobody walked out or protested. Throughout the convention, the short, digestible speakers have followed the themes, obeyed the script, cued the videotape, and exited the stage right on time.

The truly "political" convention was held last week when an advance guard of delegates came to San Diego to debate the party's platform.

That's when there were closed-door meetings. That's when there were tense negotiations. That's when nobody knew exactly how things would work out.

And you know what? It worked out fine. It was not civil war, no matter what a lot of the media said. It was a healthy competition between party members who supported abortion rights, and moral conservatives who had done their homework and gotten the most votes _ which, as old-fashioned as this might seem, is what wins. Officially, the party acted almost ashamed of it and tried to pretend that no politics had occurred.

The trouble with trying to smooth out the rough spots is that you remove the high ones along with the low ones. The TV cameras always focus on the most excited delegates. They zero in on the podium.

Inside the hall, it's different. There is a definite dispersion of energy. There have been only two overwhelmingly powerful moments during this convention _ Nancy Reagan's heart-wrenching, tearful thank-you and the delegates' honest ovation in answer to Powell's call for unity.

The rest of it _ yes, including Molinari's heralded speech _ has been so much potted meat.

No Barry Goldwater, bringing the convention to a roar in 1964 with his famous declaration that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

No tumult and collision of ideas, like the Democrats had in 1968.

No Ted Kennedy, giving one of the greatest concession speeches in history in 1980.

Three great moments in the history of convention politics. Which led to three whippings in November. Given the option of making history or trying to win, Haley Barbour is comfortable with his decision.