It's hours before his boss's biggest speech ever, and Mark Mackinnon, Gov. George W. Bush's ad guru, is sitting in the convention center's stage talking into his cellphone.
A random techie is behind the podium as a stand-in -- his shirt blindingly white, freshly dry-cleaned -- as the lighting crew adjusts so that the Texas governor will bask in the appropriate warm shades this evening.
Hundreds of poster-board signs, etched by seemingly the same hand in the same red, blue and black acrylic paint, fill the pews of the First Union Center.
"Honesty Integrity Bush," reads one.
"The Millenium [sic] Prez," says another.
Red, white and blue balloons already fill the rafters, ready for the traditional Mylar bomb, as Philadelphia's most trusted newsman, Channel 6 anchor Jim Gardner interviews the once-pugilistic former city councilman now known as Mayor John Street.
In 1981, Street jumped upon and brawled with another city councilman. He also once pushed a TV cameraman to the ground. The camera caught the image, and it was used against Street in his mayoral run last year. But he's since toned down his image; he and Gardner chat amiably.
Bush has proven also to be a master at images. The pictures have been pretty, oh so pretty. The House impeachment managers, Tom DeLay, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, have been all but hidden from view. The words "guns," "abortion" and "impeachment" have barely been uttered. "Attack night" was scrapped. Lots of vague talk about restoring character and purpose, becoming a more inclusive party, refraining from nasty partisanship.
"Mary Cheney's out of the closet, but the conservatives are in it," groused one high-ranking Democratic official. "Conservatism is the ideology that dare not speak its name in Philadelphia."
But Mackinnon, Bush's image man, disagrees.
"Every night has been designed to talk about different issues," he says. "We've talked about education, we've talked about Social Security, we've talked about all these issues that actually Al Gore's been copying us on." After Bush laid out proposals for Social Security investment, education accountability and a tax cut, Gore followed up with versions of his own, Mackinnon says.
As for the criticism that Bush is serving up little more than a shiny facade for the same old GOP meanies, Mackinnon argues that image and substance work hand-in-hand. And part of the GOP soft-sell -- that Bush is simply a nicer guy than Gore -- is an important part of that.
"Everything works together," Mackinnon says. "It is about the governor's political philosophy, it's about his agenda, but it's about his humanity, too." Thursday night's speech will have "more than enough" discussion of issues, he insists. He defines Bush's "humanity" as "his compassion for people. Policy and humanity go hand-in-hand with the governor. The reason he has a political philosophy is because he cares about people. And that's what will come out tonight."
"Whether you're a partisan, or an observer, or whatever, one thing I feel confident about is that this speech is a perfect mirror of George W. Bush. I think people will get a total picture tonight, and they will either like it or they won't, but it will be George W. Bush."
As for gibes that the GOP Convention has featured far more African-American speakers on stage than delegates in the arena prompting the Weekly Standard's David Brooks to compare it to a Utah Jazz game -- Mackinnon says Bush is trying to send "a different kind of Republican message, of inclusion, that hasn't been part of the Republican message in the last decade."
He cites the prime-time speech of Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., as an example. Kolbe is the only openly gay Republican member of Congress, and some delegates protested his being allotted such a slot on Tuesday night, bowing their heads or leaving the auditorium altogether while he talked -- about international trade.
Kolbe's speech, Mackinnon says, is "just another reflection of the governor's commitment to including everybody in this bigger tent."
But there can be weird moments in that tent, I say. Isn't there something inherently disconnected about having African-Americans like Bush foreign policy advisor Condoleezza Rice and retired Gen. Colin Powell speaking alongside Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.? Lott, after all, has met with and spoken to leadership of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, and as a student at Ole Miss he helped lead the charge against integration.
Mackinnon sees nothing awry. "There is room in this party for a lot of different people ... I think all those people are comfortable being together."
But in a party run by white Christian men, very few of the speakers seem to fall into the category. Isn't that contradictory?
"You know what? I'm proud to be guilty of that charge," Mackinnon says with a whiff of irritation. "It's reaching out. If you want to attract new voices to the party, you have to bring new voices into the party. You have to reach out across the old lines and old boundaries and show where you want to take the party."