In 1981, Zulma Barrios, a native of El Salvador, was working for Mutual of Omaha Insurance, living a quiet life in New York City. Then, back in El Salvador, three men burst into her brother's house -- he was the government's chief of telecommunications -- and shot him 21 times. Barrios decided it was time to become a politically active citizen.
She joined the Republican Party that year, an anomaly as a Central American in Manhattan, and has never looked back.
"The United States is a nation whose destiny is to help better the world," said Barrios, 60, vice president of the women and diversity program at Gallup University and a first-time delegate to the Republican National Convention from Nebraska, where she relocated in 1983. "The Republican Party," she added, "is the best at doing that."
Rogers J. Johnson, the majority whip of the New Hampshire state House, is another first-time delegate whose embrace of the GOP as a young man may have seemed counterintuitive -- he is black and from the segregated South.
Johnson's parents remember when they were not allowed to vote. But Johnson, 46, blames the other party for that. "You know who was preventing blacks from being able to vote? Democrats," he said. "And you know the people who helped us? Republicans."
Barrios and Johnson are two of the faces the Republican Party is bragging about this year. While the party captured only a fraction of the minority vote in 2000, this year, the GOP has the most ethnically diverse national delegation in its history. More than 800 of the 4,853 delegates and alternates at the convention, or about 17 percent, are members of racial or ethnic minorities -- up from 10 percent four years ago, according to the Republican National Committee. African American representation is up an estimated 65 percent, Asian American representation up nearly 40 percent, and Hispanics, a group the Republican Party has been heavily courting for years, make up the largest minority, adding 15 percent to the 100 percent surge Republicans saw between 1996 and 2000, party officials say.
A stroll through the convention floor at Madison Square Garden leaves no doubt that the stereotype of the party consisting of middle-aged white men is giving way to a new makeup: younger, older, blacker, browner members. The delegation includes 297 Hispanics, 290 African Americans and 104 Asians or Pacific Islanders. But the party has recruited minorities without altering its ideology, much as a church invites new congregants into its fold. Black or white, young or old, and moderate or conservative, for that matter, the delegates here are all on the same page.
Interviews with delegates repeatedly found the same list of national priorities. In a close race in which relatively few voters are undecided and championing President Bush is the order of the week, the delegates have chosen as their rallying issue the very same one on which Bush leads his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), in the polls: the war on terrorism. A close second: the war in Iraq.
It seems that much as an almost visceral dislike of Bush trumped all differences between the liberal and moderate delegates at the Democratic National Convention in July in Boston, an abiding belief in the Republican Party vision for the country is trumping all differences and varying agendas among the GOP faithful.
Morning or afternoon, in the cramped seats on the convention floor or in the higher and roomier sections of Madison Square Garden, it was hard over the past two days to find a convention-goer who put domestic issues ahead of the war in Iraq and the broader fight against terrorism.
Delegates expressed delight that Ron Silver, the character actor whose political pronouncements were liberal until the invasion of Iraq, addressed the convention -- and a national television audience -- to proclaim: "The president is doing exactly the right thing."
The delegates were also thrilled with Arizona Sen. John McCain's praise of Bush's strength, and exhilarated that the political hero of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, focused his remarks almost exclusively on Bush's strength and leadership in the war on terrorism.
Some delegates, meanwhile, expressed dismay that Monday night's opening invocation was delivered by Imam Izak-El M. Pasha, the Muslim chaplain of the New York City Police Department.
Robert Steinhagen, a delegate from Dallas, was one of them. Steinhagen, a full-time fundraiser for a Christian ministry and a former strategist for several Republican congressional campaigns, said the clergyman should not have been allowed to say the prayer. He has studied the Koran, Steinhagen said, and believes it does not contain passages advocating peace toward non-Muslims. "I think the president is wrong when he says Islam is a peaceful religion," Steinhagen said. Bush, he said, "should not have allowed this to happen."
But most delegates remained focused on the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq. While polls show the nation increasingly skeptical of the rationale for the Iraq invasion and increasingly troubled by the aftermath, Republican delegates are rock solid in their support of the war, even though weapons of mass destruction were not found in that country.
Delegates had no sympathy for Kerry's argument that the United States should have tried harder to build a multinational coalition to deal with former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Mike McKay, a Seattle lawyer and Washington state delegate, put it this way: "George Bush will take the battle to the terrorists. . . . Kerry wants to go work with those other countries. He wants to wait until we get a consensus with France and Germany." His dismissive tone left no doubt what he thought of that idea.
McKay was one of several delegates who showed little concern for the United States' image internationally. Carmen Bermudez, a delegate from Tucson, went further. Bush must be reelected to finish the job he began in Iraq, she said. "If we change presidents," she said, "it will be an embarrassment to the United States."
Bermudez, 60, a Costa Rican native who was chosen to lead the Pledge of Allegiance to open Tuesday night's session, dismissed arguments that Bush's go-it-alone spirit and impatience with European allies have damaged the nation's image overseas. "It would really hurt us internationally if we do not reelect President Bush," she insisted.
Or, as Minnesota delegate Tom Conlon, a member of the St. Paul school board, put it: "If you change leadership, it could be perceived as weakness."
Like Conlon and so many others here, Martha Stamp, an alternate delegate from South Kingstown, R.I., who was a delegate in 1996, said Bush personified strength and leadership necessary during a time of world crisis.
"Even though Rhode Island is majority Democrat, we have kept up our committee meetings and believe that all our hard work will bear fruit eventually," said Stamp, 67, whose family runs a small farm that grows sweet corn and houseplants.
"We need a strong leader, a serious leader," said Stamp, adorned with a paper Uncle Sam hat and a chest full of political buttons.
Young Republicans said the same thing. Stacy Pannas, a 23-year-old delegate from Salem, Ore., who works full time for the state Republican Party, said that while she is a social conservative, for her, Bush's leadership is his main selling point.
"The idea of a Kerry presidency makes my skin crawl," she said. "President Bush has already proven himself as the leader we need. But I realize that not everyone lives and breathes politics in this country. So I'm looking forward to this convention as a way to make that case to the broader public."