For the Reagan faithful, winning is the ultimate revenge. They are in such glowing good spirits they are in danger of approaching that most un-Republican contemporary state of grace called mellow.
But it is not that they have forgotten the old hurts and anger stored up so long. Their memories of bitter defeats and rejections merely makes them savor this moment of vindication all the more. More than anything else, it is that emotion which gives this convention its special quality. You can bury that canard about this being a boring gathering; it may be for the media, but not for the delegates.
Cynthia Bunnell, for instance, has been ardently for Reagan for years. And she remembers all too painfully that night at the last convention when Ronald Reagan stood beside Gerald Ford in Kansas City, a candidate seemingly consigned to the past instead of the future.
"I was sitting before the TV set crying my eyes out," she recalls. "I felt torn apart, just tragic."
Now she's here with the California delegation and awaits Reagan's nomination Wednesday. "It's going to be very emotional," she says.
This convention is filled with such delegates. Among some, the good feeling approaches religious joy -- and they can't understand all the talk about this being a dull, unemotional affair. They've been awaiting this day for almost a generation now.
Bill Tribe, a furniture dealer from Odgen, Utah, is only one of many who speaks of Reagan as a political messiah.
"They say this convention is not exciting," he says, "but under the surface this is the most exciting thing this year. We're not going to have a lot of floor fights. We don't have to justify our leader. This is a sort of rallying of the spirit."
Tribe has a sunny, sunburnt face and gee-whiz manner.He thinks he is participating in a great historic turning point -- the year when America pulls back from the liberal welfare state and returns to free enterprise and the Constitution.
"This is our last chance to turn around the liberal philosophy," he says gravely. "By 1984, about 60 percent of all the employables will be working directly or indirectly for the federal government. That coalition can't be turned around. This is our last gasp for free enterprise."
That idea of a last chance and a return to "basic" American principles runs through the words of delegates from all states. They see Reagan as turning back the governmental trends of the last half century, of unifying the country and giving it a clear sense of direction, of restoring American pride and rebuilding American presitige abroad.
And all of this is said with an earnestness and simplicity of expression -- that leaves no doubt of the speaker's depth of conviction.
"Ronald Reagan's America would be back of grass roots principles and old-fashioned American ideals," says Larry Pepper, 35, a lawyer from Vineland, N.J., who is attending his first national GOP convention. "I think we'd see an America that began to look again at the work ethic, at production, entrepreneurship, an America where the family unit became once again important, back to the traditional values that made America great." o
Pepper touched on a theme sounded by nearly all of those interview today -- that the America was in trouble because of its state of mind.
"Our spirit's down," he says. "I think we need a reconstruction of the American spirit. I have the hope that he can make this difference. At least it'll be a new beginning. Americans are anxious to have a leader they can respect and follow. The American people want to be first-rate."
What these Republicans are saying sounds like a page out of the Democratic past. In a time of supposed pessimism and sense of American decline at home and abroad, these Republicans remain optimistic about the future.
They take the same message as Franklin Roosevelt's -- "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" -- and apply it to Reagan.
One delegate, Joe Ortwerth, 24, of St. Louis, even links Reagan with FDR. "I think Reagan will be the kind of President Franklin D. Roosevelt was," he says. "He will be able to command respect and heal the wounds of the country and bring people together."
For Reagan true-believers to be citing the example of FDR's leadership has its irony, especially in view of the record of successive GOP conventions which ritually and bitterly denounced the New Deal and all its works.
The difference now is that these Republican delegates no longer see themselves as political outsiders. They believe the country has finally come around to their views, and that under Reagan a new era is about to dawn.
"I envision it as a strong America," says Jo Walker, a Tallahassee, Fla., school teacher. "We're adrift now and we're going to get that patriotism back. America is longing for this unity, to get back to the basic of what this country's all about."
As Bill Tribe said, with moral certinty, "the country is just exploding with conservatism." Now these delegates are convinced, Americans are recognizing the virtues they recognized in Reagan all along.
"He hasn't changed, and I haven't changed, but I think we need some changes in the direction of the country," remarks Bryan Patrick, who as South Carolina's Commissioner of Agriculture, is the first statewide elected GOP officeholder in a century.
William Evans, a San Diego businessman, first became a convert at the 1964 convention when he heard Reagan speak. Four years ago he stood among the California delegation in Kansas City with tears in his eyes as Reagan was defeated by Ford. "I felt very badly," he recalls. "I was heartsick."
Now Evans, like most of these delegates, exudes good will. He came to Detroit by way of New York, where he had been on business. He knew times had changed when he arrived at La-Guardia Airport. The New York delegation was preparing to come here on the same flight.
"Four years ago they wouldn't listen to us," he said, with a smile. "Now they were all wearing Reagan buttons and all gung-ho. It kind of restores your faith."
In the not-so-distant past, Evans is the kind of Reagan delegate who was convinced his candidate would never get a fair shake -- especially from the national press. But even that old hostility appears absent in the glow of Reagan's triumph.
"I think the national press has been very good to Ronald Reagan," Evans said, adding slyly -- "in the last six weeks."