Republican state party leaders wanted their 1998 nominating convention to really be something special.

Not only would it be a place for party delegates to pick candidates for federal and multi-county legislative seats, but it would be a show. A spectacular. A good time.But something went wrong along the way.

And the two-day affair last Friday night and Saturday morning became one of the most conservative, Democratic-bashing, Bible-thumping political events in some time.

In fact, I've been going to Republican state conventions since the early 1980s, and while there have been some bizarre happenings, I can't remember a convention where the Lord's name and religion played such a public part of the proceedings, where resolutions were passed specifically criticizing the policies of GOP state leaders and Democrats so ridiculed.

But something else happened last weekend - an example of how the best-laid plans of man can go awry.

GOP state chairman Rob Bishop, a former speaker of the Utah House who has been involved in GOP politics since high school, wanted to expand the base of the party by doubling the number of GOP state delegates from 2,500 to 5,000.

And he wanted to make the state convention an event - a weeklong pep rally that would make Republicans from all over the state feel welcome and get enthusiastic in this off-year election.

So, for the first time that anyone can remember, Republicans held their convention in Utah County - bastion of political conservatism. Specifically, they held it in the McKay Special Events Center on the campus of Utah Valley State College.

Now, some saw mischief in Bishop's plans. Some said that by doubling the number of state delegates the right wing of the party - some of whom are zealots who love to talk about upholding the divinely inspired U.S. Constitution - would have less influence. The arch-conservative spirits diluted by moderate water, if you will.

Maybe doubling delegates would bring fewer outlandish platform amendments, some said. Maybe nationally recognized leaders like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wouldn't have to withstand the giggles from Washington, D.C., colleagues like he did after the 1997 Utah GOP convention criticized Hatch's child health-insurance plan.

Bishop denies such motives, saying he just wanted more Republican rank-and-file to participate; he wasn't trying to manipulate anything.

At first, Bishop planned to have the Friday night session of the state convention in Salt Lake County and end promptly at 8 p.m.; 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole was to fly in briefly that night for a special party fund-raiser starting at 8 p.m.

Accordingly, the platform and resolution debate portion of the convention would be at the state Fairpark near the airport for Dole's convenience. And it figures that many Salt Lake County delegates - by and large a more moderate group - would be well- rep-re-sented. Strict time constraints would limit platform and resolution debates.

But then Dole backed out. And Bishop and other party leaders decided not to split up the convention - half in Salt Lake, half in Orem. The platform and resolution portion of the convention would be in the McKay Center on Friday night.

And, while Dole's visit would have required adjournment at around 8 p.m., with the fund-raiser now junked delegates could talk on into the night.

Moving the platform debate to Utah County - one of the most con-ser-va-tive counties in the nation - coupled with a freak rainstorm that discouraged some delegates from attending the Friday night meeting and no firm adjournment hour, combined to change the makeup of the convention delegation.

Instead of a bunch of moderate Salt Lake County delegates, curtailed by strict time constraints, ruling the night, the platform debate seemed to be dominated by Utah County and rural delegates (who were staying overnight Friday in nearby motels).

Even though 5,000 delegates were certified - and Bishop believed just over 4,000 would show up - as the platform and resolution voting crept toward midnight on Friday fewer than 1,000 delegates were sitting on the convention floor.

And despite Saturday dawning a beautiful day, GOP leaders say that many of the GOP delegates from Salt Lake County's portion of the 3rd Congressional District didn't show up. (The Jazz were playing on national TV at 1:30 p.m. - the scheduled end of the convention).

On Saturday, Utah County delegates seemed to rule the 3rd District vote, and freshman Rep. Chris Cannon fell about 30 votes short of eliminating conservative firebrand Jeremy Friedbaum in the convention.

Cannon now faces a June 23 primary with Friedbaum, one of the rare cases in Utah politics where a relatively popular incumbent was forced into a primary.

In hindsight, it appears that doubling the number of delegates (which gave even more hard-core conservatives the opportunity to participate), holding the convention in Utah County and holding the platform and resolution votes on a Friday night didn't dilute the right wing of the party but actually enhanced it.

Bishop may want bigger and more entertaining conventions. But if GOP leaders want their conventions to better reflect the general nature of their party membership they might do well to rethink the basic format of the proceedings.