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Not your father's GOP // A gender-swapping estrogen festival

I was put in mind of a Dorothy Parker phrase, as I watched the Republicans nurture, cuddle, swaddle and practically lactate on prime time. It made me want to fwow up.

This encounter session of a convention was so gauzy and feminized, with treacly videos and speeches featuring women, kids and a rainbow of ethnic groups, it made the Olympics look like Al Bundy territory.

Historically, the Republicans have always been the Daddy party, thundering about national defense and Communists and making money. And the Democrats have been the Mommy party, domestic caregivers clucking over women and children and health and the less fortunate.

But in this campaign, the parties are gender-swapping or cross-dressing or maybe just lying.

The Democrats are trying to woo men by playing the stern Daddy. In 1992 the Democrats Oprah-ized their convention, with Bill Clinton and Al Gore confessing their deepest New Age feelings. But the Dick Morris presidential model is the disciplinarian, kicking 1.1-million children below the poverty level by signing a brass-knuckles welfare bill and scolding America's teenagers about drugs, smoking and pregnancy.

The Republicans, meanwhile, presented an estrogen festival, as Bob Dole tried to court female voters. In 1992, the Houston hall was packed with macho men: Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in President Bush's box, as Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan terrorized the hall with blood-and-guts speeches.

Phil Gramm was replaced on the podium by his Korean wife, Wendy, and Pat Buchanan was kicked off the podium. This was a testosterone lite convention where even Bay Buchanan was considered too macho. The Republicans managed to come across as exactly opposite of how they look off camera, exactly the opposite of their punitive platform and exactly the opposite of heartless budget slashers.

Susan Molinari, the congressional Katie Couric, saw it as her duty to literally make the GOP the Mommy party. But family values do not include turning your infant into a prop.

This endless ladies' night featured a former Miss America, a former supermodel and politicians' wives, once ignored, now dragged out on stage at every turn. Christie Whitman of horse country talked diversity. Barbara Bush hugged her son, George W., the Texas governor. Laura Bush, George W.'s wife, talked about teaching reading to kids. Elizabeth Dole wandered among the delegates with a microphone, a la Ricki Lake.

Newt Gingrich, still frantic to look cuddly, capped the smarmathon with a grandiose video with soaring eagles and shots of himself talking to cute little black girls and boys. Not satisfied that he had surrounded himself with enough animals and heroes, he then introduced a woman with multiple sclerosis and her helper dog, and an Olympic athlete who won a gold medal in beach volleyball.

Even Tony Blankley, the urbane Gingrich spokesman, seemed a bit stunned by the video. Asked if the speaker played beach volleyball, Blankley replied drily: "I have never been to the beach with Newt."

The party of Mars is not accustomed to acting feminine, and it has produced some weird moments. While it was moving to hear Jan Licence talk about the nightmare of her rape, it seemed excessive at the convention of a party that tried to cut $161-million out of the Violence Against Women Act, and that adopted a platform that would have forced the woman to carry the baby to term if the attack had left her pregnant.

The Tin Man nominee also got himself a heart _ the sentimental "bleeding-heart conservative" Jack Kemp, who loves to rattle on about how much he loves minorities, if only he hadn't been forced to change his positions on affirmative action and expelling the children of illegal immigrants from public schools.

Kemp is in touch with his feminine side. At a speech on Wednesday he nearly broke down several times talking about his late father and the fact that Bob Dole can't throw a football.

The Time cover picture of Dole and Kemp incongruously appeared under the headline for a space story: Life on Mars. Time editors were chagrined, but the headline was apt. This is not the party of Venus yet.

New York Times News Service