I had assumed that the Republicans would run a better show. Maybe it’s Madison Square Garden — in comparison to the Fleet Center in Boston, the facilities here look tired. The carpet is worn; the walls need paint; the layout outside the hall is disjointed and puzzling; and the floor itself is poorly configured for presenting an impressive stage setup. It’s disappointing, really, because I was prepared to see choreographic elegance and skilled political performance — to experience Triumph of the Will in the flesh. But the room does not feel like a source of strength. Whereas the sight of the DNC hall was striking, with multiple bright screens and the right composition of color in the backlit signs, the Republicans’ presentation is shabby. It’s more like a slight improvement over the entertainment hall at an aviation-industry trade show in Omaha. And somehow, if you breathe deep in there, you can smell weakness. Even the far fewer Republican kick-off balloons look sad, waiting in their little net hammocks from the otherwise bare ceiling.

More surprising is the emptiness. Some of that can be chalked up to the much smaller size of the delegations Republicans send to their national convention; they’re about half the size of those in the Democratic Party. But it almost feels like some of the members of those smaller Republican delegations didn’t show. Blogger corner has been deserted every time I stop by. And the caterers are complaining that the head counts for special functions inside the Garden were overestimated, leaving extra food to go to waste.

Inside the arena, the gallery seats are vacant acreage, and there are pockets of empty seats everywhere else, allowing a kind of access and movement on the floor that was inconceivable in Boston. During the high points in the program at the DNC — Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, John Kerry — the presence of the crowd was crushing. It made you sweat. Fire marshals barred entry to the hall many times. Here in New York, there are big gaps on the floor. During Giuliani’s speech Monday night, I saw at least three spots from my vantage point where you could hit some synchronized break-dancing routines without bothering anybody.

And the atmosphere is strangely reserved. The delegates have donned their elephant ears, and little flag pins, and “W” hats, and SAVE A HAMSTER: DUMP KERRY buttons, but there is not the groundswell of excitement that one expects at the gathering of a dominant party about to re-coronate their Emperor. On the floor, almost everyone I talked to disclosed at least some ambivalence about Bush if I hung around long enough. And you could see it onstage, where, as everyone knows by now, the biggest response of the opening night was for John McCain’s dig against Michael Moore. That means Moore’s effort is working, because he’s under their skin. The Republicans are going to have to do better than swipes at Moore to make the country swoon. Even Giuliani’s totalitarian wedding toast only got a couple of standing ovations.

This is just how the GOP works: with illusions. They fool everyone into believing they’re all powerful, but then you get up close and peel back the curtain, and it’s just some old geezer with a few levers sticking out of the control panel. Same with their politics: illusions. Weapons of Mass Destruction? A trick. Compassionate Conservatism? A ruse. And what’s trickle-down economics if not the greatest parlor trick of all time? Charlatans!

But then again, maybe appearances don’t mean much. People do parlor tricks because they fool people, right? The Republicans have done their best to play down expectations of the convention, which could be a trap. That must be some survival strategy from the wild I’ve seen on Discovery Channel: Play wounded, and then pounce. Maybe when Karl Rove walked by me Monday night and flashed a quick little smile, it was because he knew that while all the press are here, paying attention to the little successes or foibles on the stage in the Garden, the real business is going at the RNC headquarters in Arlington, where the analysts in the darkened cubicles of the Republicans’ Get Out The Vote offices are silently and effectively mining the voter data, cross-tabbing and correlating and writing algorithms to fan out names, addresses and phone numbers to the precinct offices in Ohio and Michigan, where the volunteers and paid staff are putting in the calls and visiting the door steps that may make the difference in November. Maybe somewhere out there, the Democratic mobilization strategists, like Steve Rosenthal, are watching the RNC at home, and they’re wearing even bigger smiles than Rove’s.

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