ATLANTA, JULY 19 -- A few weeks ago, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the man who instigated the ethics investigation of House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), predicted that "three or four thousand of my closest friends" would show up at the Democratic National Convention here to harass Wright, who is convention chairman.
Yet when a group called Public Advocate held a "mock trial" of Wright this morning at the official protest site a block from this city's convention hall, the event didn't draw enough spectators to form a jury pool -- even without peremptory challenges.
Mike Bael, one of just two onlookers on hand for the opening arguments, said he came out of simple curiosity after reading a notice in the local press. "I like Jim Wright," Bael said. "I think he got caught doing something foolish, but it's not that different" from the behavior of other politicians.
In a city full of reporters feverishly searching for news, the story of Wright and how his investigation by the House ethics committee might prove embarrassing to Democrats as he chaired their quadrennial meeting is among the most elusive.
Republican hopes that the probe of the speaker's financial dealings will provide sufficient grist to prevent Democrats from harping on Attorney General Edwin Meese III may yet materialize during the fall campaign. But here in Atlanta, it has caused barely a ripple.
Members of a Republican truth squad assigned here to make the most of Democratic blemishes have tried to keep the issue alive. "I think it's devastating to have Jim Wright on the platform," Rep. Don Sundquist (R-Tenn.) told the Associated Press. "I think that if they had any way to get him off the platform without embarrassing him, they would."
Wright has perhaps kept a somewhat lower profile than he might have hoped for as the party's leading officeholder, but he has been less of a target and symbol than many Democrats had feared. Contrary to some predictions, he has held onto the gavel during prime time, and the sight has invited few network references to the ethics inquiry.
Wright has outwardly maintained the same kind of steely composure that he has exhibited in Washington during the weeks of questioning after the ethics committee's decision to probe his financial and legislative dealings.
"Nobody likes unkind things to be said about him," Wright said Monday. "I regret having to go through it, but the only way around it is right straight through it."
At the same time, the speaker has lashed out at Republican efforts to capitalize on the issue. "People in the Republican ranks are trying their fevered best . . . to spread mud and slime whenever they can," he said. "The public is not deceived by all of this."
That the ethics investigation has been a decidedly back-burner item here has come as something of a relief to Wright's staff. "It's working out great," said Wilson Morris, one of his spokesmen. "We're not getting anything. The only problem we have is media-created."
But Lee Atwater, Vice President Bush's campaign manager, said, "I'd say before it's all over there will be a few more shots taken at Jim Wright."