KWAME HOLMAN: Students at Washington and Lee University in Southern Virginia own one of the oldest traditions in the history of American politics. Every four years since 1908, they have held a mock convention to nominate a candidate for President. The convention is always held for the party not currently occupying the White House. Believe it or not, it's a tradition the students take very seriously. The parade down Main Street in small town Lexington is just the kick-off of the two- day event.
SPOKESMAN: Of course, they're not the last blood of the Republican Party anymore. That's what you're looking for, the future of the Republican Party.
KWAME HOLMAN: This past Friday and Saturday, Washington and Lee University held its 1996 mock convention. The mostly conservative student body was particularly excited because it was the first Republican Convention to be held in 16 years. The students kept with the tradition of inviting to the convention the top political figures of the day. This year, House Majority Whip Tom Delay and Virginia's senior Senator John Warner, a Washington and Lee graduate himself, attended. Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour spoke Friday evening.
HALEY BARBOUR, Republican National Chairman: I don't know who our nominee is going to be, and you may tomorrow be the ones who get it right.
KWAME HOLMAN: And William Bennett, the former education secretary, now chairman of Lamar Alexander's Presidential campaign, spoke at the Saturday morning session.
WILLIAM BENNETT, Chairman, Alexander Campaign: It's great to be here. I have heard about this convention and it doesn't--there doesn't seem much mock about it. This seems very real. I hope this is real. (audience cheering)
KWAME HOLMAN: But it was former Vice President Dan Quayle who proved to be the crowd favorite. The reception he got nearly moved him to enter the race for the Presidency, himself.
DAN QUAYLE: With this kind of enthusiasm and this kind of welcome, I think I'm just going to throw away my speech and go ahead and announce right here. (crowd cheering) Is there any doubt in anyone's mind that a Republican is going back to the White House in November?
KWAME HOLMAN: What attracts such big names to the mock convention is its impressive success rate. Students at Washington and Lee have chosen correctly the party's ultimate nominee 15 times in 20 tries. They've chosen right every time but once since 1948, and so during this complex political year, the pressure was on these students not to choose wrong.
BOB ROSS, Political Chairman, Mock Convention: I'm not sleeping at night. It is such a tough race. It's up in the air. It's first after Arizona. We were counting Forbes out. Now he's back in.
KWAME HOLMAN: Students at Washington and Lee split into delegations representing all 50 states and the territories, spending weeks researching the candidates, gauging their chances, frequently calling state and county party officials, enlisting the help of political scientists, and closely monitoring the polls. The goal of each delegation is to select the candidate voters back home would select, an easy task for the New Hampshire and South Dakota delegations, for instance, where primaries already have been held, a much tougher decision for states with primaries just days away, like Maryland, where Alison Beard was state delegation chairman.
ALISON BEARD, Chairman, Maryland Delegation: It was pretty much go all the way until, I don't know, I guess two months ago, and then we started getting really nervous, and furiously phone- calling everyone.
KWAME HOLMAN: On Friday, one day before she had to cast the votes for her delegation, Alison Beard was anticipating chaos on the convention floor.
ALISON BEARD: We're assuming almost that there's going to be a brokered convention, the race has been so close so far.
KWAME HOLMAN: Freshman Jon Hughes, the Vermont state chairman, also had some last minute doubts and called his delegation together to work them out.
JON HUGHES, Chairman, Vermont Delegation: The "Burlington Free Press" guy said he thinks it's going to be Dole and Alexander, with Lugar as the surprise, pulling up the rear. So-- (laughter)
CHRIS BONDS, Research Chairman, Vermont Delegation: It's been rough for the last couple of days and he's going to keep staying there and keep campaigning real hard there. He's decided he's going to go visit some other states, but he's going to sleep in Vermont till after the vote, because the Lugar campaign has pretty much decided that Vermont may be the only state they have a chance at winning, so--
JON HUGHES: I see Lugar as being a perfectly plausible candidate.
KWAME HOLMAN: With Vermont's primary also just days away, the pressure to predict a winner was increasing.
JON HUGHES: We were supposed to give an idea of how we were going to vote two days ago.
PERSON IN GROUP: What did we say?
JON HUGHES: And I told 'em, I said, Dole's the easy thing to say, and that's what I'm going to say right now, but that's not necessarily what's going to come out of my mouth at the convention.
CHRIS MacNAUGHTON ON PHONE: Is Mr. Lee Bandy in, please?
KWAME HOLMAN: But most of the pressure fell on Christ MacNaughton, a Washington and Lee senior and chairman of the South Carolina delegation.
CHRIS MacNAUGHTON, Chairman, South Carolina Delegation: (on phone) Yes. That's exactly what I'm thinking. I could flip a coin. All right.
KWAME HOLMAN: The South Carolina primary was Saturday, decision day at the mock convention. Chris MacNaughton knew that once he cast the votes for his delegation the voters back home would prove him right or wrong within hours.
CHRIS MacNAUGHTON: It's a little bit added pressure, because we'll know that night. If we guess wrong, then later that night we'll find out that we were wrong. But I think it's also a lot of pressure because a lot of other states are looking toward South Carolina to find out who they're going to nominate. They're waiting. If we tell them we're definitely going for Dole for a big majority, then they're going to also go that way also, whereas, we could switch it up, and that's when other states are really looking to us to find out what they're going to do.
KWAME HOLMAN: On Saturday, decision day, student delegates, their parents, and alumni lined up early to attend the final session of the mock convention. One last rousing reception was reserved for the keynote speaker, House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: While amateurs are watching South Carolina today, sophisticated folks are watching you to find out what's going to happen.
KWAME HOLMAN: When Gingrich finished, the convention moved on to the business of selecting the Republican nominee for President. But by then, a consensus had formed. There would be no brokered convention. The state delegations were confident.
CHRIS MacNAUGHTON: I called a few of contacts, a few reporters, and made sure nothing has really changed big. Dole's still leading strong in the polls, and we're going with him.
ALISON BEARD: Basically I just talked to Chris MacNaughton, who's South Carolina's state chairman, and he told me that they think they're going Dole, so I'm pretty firm with my delegate selection. I think I'm going to still give one to Pat Buchanan, though.
JON HUGHES: Winner take all, all 12 for the first two ballots are going for Dole.
ALISON BEARD: The great state of Maryland, one of the only states that can claim to be both Yankee and Confederate, gives three votes to Pat Buchanan and the remaining twenty-nine votes to the next President of the United States, Sen. Bob Dole! (cheering in crowd)
KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Bob Dole captured all or the majority of delegates in nearly every state, including, of course, his home state of--
KANSAS DELEGATE: Kansas gives all 31 of its delegates to its native son, who will take this party on to defeat Bill Clinton and into the next century. I give you Bob Dole!
KWAME HOLMAN: Dole secured the nomination on the first ballot, with Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Lamar Alexander finishing far behind.
SEN. ROBERT DOLE, Republican Presidential Candidate: (on phone) Okay. Well, thanks very much, and I accept the nomination. I appreciate it very much.
KWAME HOLMAN: And as for the student delegates:
ALISON BEARD: No one could imagine what it would actually be like until we came here, and it's just--it's so realistic and such an honor to be a part of it, and it only comes once every four years, we're all just very honored and excited. It's been a great experience.
CHRIS MacNAUGHTON: I agree, definitely. It's been a great experience. We've all put a lot of hard work into it. I think we've all just really learned a lot more about the political process.
JON HUGHES: The atmosphere here was, I imagine, was just like at the convention, that much excitement, made me work harder. It was a lot of work. I really enjoyed it, and it gets me interested in politics. I mean, I loved it.