updated 9/1/2004 7:17:01 PM ET 2004-09-01T23:17:01

Moviemaker Michael Moore is the “anti-Christ.” Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter is a selfish hedonist. Cultural wars need fighters from here to Oklahoma.

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These are the views of some of President Bush’s political core here — delivered quietly and mostly offstage so GOP convention cameras don’t see and swing voters don’t hear.

Prime-time speeches are reserved for poll-tested words about Bush’s wartime leadership and “compassionate conservative” agenda. Cultural conservatism is shunted to the sidelines. The right gets to wing it, but only when the network cameras are turned off or the media are banned.

As when Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas told an invitation-only Bush rally for Christian conservatives, “We must win this cultural war.” He offered an agenda strikingly different from anything voters will hear from the convention platform, including a proposed requirement that pregnant women considering abortions be offered anesthesia for their fetuses.

Democrats said Republicans aren’t kidding anybody by softening the hard right.

“Underneath a thin veneer of compassionate slogans, there’s a divisive, negative agenda that is driving the Republican Party and has controlled this White House and their policies for the past four years,” said Mary Beth Cahill, campaign manager for Bush rival John Kerry. “The Republican Party has miscalculated again if they thought they could keep their true extreme agenda under wraps while middle class families have been suffering from it all along.”

Republicans said their stage management is no different from Democratic theatrics at Kerry’s nominating convention in Boston, where only the most gentle hands touched hot button issues such as abortion rights, gay rights and gun control. “Let’s get real,” said GOP strategist Joe Gaylord of Washington. “We both play down our extremes.”

And so, White House aide Jim Towey was addressing Missouri delegates at breakfast, not the full convention in prime time, when he said marriage is under attack in America. “When you look at the values in our country, there is a cultural divide,” he said, referring to the debate over gay rights.

The cultural clash extends beyond New York’s borders this week — to Oklahoma, where Republican Senate candidate Tom Coburn called his race against Rep. Brad Carson “a battle for the culture of America” and “the battle of good vs. evil.”

Another Republican Senate candidate, Alan Keyes, labeled homosexuality “selfish hedonism” during an appearance at the GOP convention. Keyes, who recently moved to Illinois to seek the Senate seat, called the vice president’s daughter a sinner.

It could have been worse.

Arizona Rep. John Shadegg got a standing ovation from his state’s delegation when he lashed out at filmmaker Moore. Shadegg said he told a newspaper executive that he had made a mistake “when you credentialed kind of the anti-Christ.”

“The left wing hates George Bush the most because he believes in God,” said Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey, a conservative Democrat who drew applause from Ohio delegates.

Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell praised Bush for knowing that “God is God and he is not.”

In a breakfast meeting with his state’s delegates, Blackwell issued a call to arms against gay marriage. “We cannot sit on the sidelines and see an assault on the most basic social institution in our democracy and that is the family that is brought together by marriage, a union between one man and woman,” he said.

Inside the convention hall, conservatives dulled their rhetorical knives.

“The key to a richer culture is strong families, and the key to strong families is strong marriages,” said Rep. Rick Santorum. Pretty tame for a lawmaker who once compared homosexual acts to bigamy and incest.

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