Monday night, the lights will go up and a freshly overhauled Xcel Energy Center will swell with the packed humanity of thousands of delegates, pundits and media types who have streamed into St. Paul from across the country for a curious quadrennial ritual -- a quaint relic of a time when political parties wielded actual power at their national conventions.

Back then, wild deals struck in obscure, guarded hotel rooms could upend the results, producing unorthodox candidates and lending an air of high drama to the proceedings.

"Those smoke-filled rooms produced some of the worst presidents we ever had," said Minnesota historian Hy Berman. "They also produced some of the best -- Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. So are we necessarily better off now? No. You make your choice."

The choice now is for a tightly choreographed, elaborately orchestrated, $58 million spectacle that amounts to a four-day infomercial for candidate and party.

"It's primarily a marketing opportunity," said Brian Sullivan, a Republican national committee member and former Minnesota gubernatorial candidate. "It's the ultimate platform to showcase the candidate and the benefits of selecting our party."

For those who live and breathe politics, the tidal wave of money and power sweeping into the Twin Cities will be intoxicating. From the glittering bashes to be thrown by Medtronic and Target to two towns bristling with events and fresh baskets of petunias along their streets, the center of the political universe from Labor Day to Thursday will be right here, a place coastal elites once sniffed at as "Flyover Land."

They won't be flying over us this time.

Bigwig convention players get to delay their appearance. Midwigs started arriving a week ago. The biggest wig of them all -- John McCain -- likely won't show up until the last day, when, like a debutante prepped for the ball, he'll have his national coming-out on a freshly built stage at the X.

"This is McCain's convention, staged for his purposes," said Chris Georgacas, a former state Republican Party chairman who's been involved in three national conventions. "Every possible resource the party has is at his disposal -- who'll keynote him, who gets the major and minor speaking parts, the way the podium's designed, the lighting, the backdrop. It's all done to showcase him as the future president."

Awkward moments

Republicans have had to negotiate some delicate terrain. Part of the mission of this convention is to somehow honor an incumbent president, yet distance him and his unpopularity from the nominee and leave McCain plenty of room to frame himself -- despite his long tenure in the Senate -- as the candidate of change and experience.

Part of the party makeover is already underway, from McCain pronouncements in a recent ad that "Washington is broken" to the official party website that appears to conveniently skip over the Bush epoch and directs viewers to video clips from the glory days of Ronald Reagan.

Up to a fifth of Republican senators may skip the convention, for a variety of reasons, from the ethics cloud hanging over the recently indicted Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens to Idaho Sen. Larry Craig's ... ahem ... indelicate history with Twin Cities airport bathroom stalls. Others, like North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, are citing the pressures of a rigorous reelection campaign. Undoubtedly, some would just prefer to run their own race and not link arms with the national party.

Still, no president has skipped his party's convention since Democrat Lyndon Johnson bowed to the pressures of Vietnam in 1968, and President Bush has no plans to miss this one.

He will be the featured speaker on opening night, joined by the most powerful vice president in history -- Dick Cheney.

Cheney's appearance has prompted grousing from some Republicans as unnecessary.

By Tuesday, the duo will be ancient history, replaced by pageant and spectacle worthy of a Broadway extravaganza. Indeed, at the heart of the convention is a producer, David Nash, who has pulled off just such productions for La Scala, the Bolshoi Ballet and Radio City Music Hall.

"This is going to be a party like Minnesota has never seen -- a defining moment for the community," said Jeff Larson, a Republican political consultant and fundraiser who is coordinating the event.

Defining moment for the party

But it also needs to be a defining moment for a party that has been buffeted by a bad economy, high gas prices and a lingering war.

Past conventions have often produced such moments -- good and bad -- on the issues of the day. Southern Democrats bolted their 1860 convention over the issue of slavery, while Republicans huddled together for a surprise pick -- Abraham Lincoln. In 1948, Minnesota's own Hubert Humphrey claimed the spotlight and the high ground on civil rights in that year's Democratic convention.

Conventions were and are a way to focus national attention on issues of their choosing.

Coalescing around a "drill now" strategy, Republicans are likely to make energy a major theme of their convention, while sticking with other tried-and-true base favorites like the fight against terrorism and no-taxes.

"A successful convention optimally would show a Republican party unified behind its presidential candidate with a coherent vision that Republicans want to accomplish," said David Strom, a staunch anti-tax conservative who now heads the Minnesota Freedom League. "All that will be very difficult to accomplish at this convention because the fractures in the party are coming to the fore."

One of those fractures will be in full evidence across the river at Target Center, where a Ron Paul sideshow will attempt to draw off as much attention as it can, using everyone from the former libertarian GOP presidential candidate to former Gov. Jesse Ventura, who is expected to deliver his best populist jabs to the assembled Paulites on Tuesday afternoon.

"We're not working against the party," insists Marianne Stebbins, a Republican activist who got squeezed out of a national delegate spot earlier this year. "We see this as a supplement to the convention.

And the dissident factor is easy to overstate. Protesters and malcontents aside, this is a chance for like-minded Republicans to rub elbows with their heroes all day and party all night.

"I've never been to one. I don't really know what to expect, but I'm excited," said Kurt Daudt, 34, an Isanti County commissioner who cracked the delegate list and will have a ringside seat on the Xcel floor.

Thumbing through his stack of invitations, Daudt said he'd lost count of the parties to which he's been invited. "I think it's going to be a fantastic time. Just fun. It's an awesome opportunity for Minnesota and the Twin Cities."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288