New Orleans — STUMBLE into the Superdome any night this week and there is no mistaking that this is a Republican, not a Democratic, convention. The delegates are largely white. They are older and wealthier. There are fewer women. Not surprisingly, they are more conservative than the electorate as a whole, just as the Democrats in Atlanta stood to the left of the general public.
But there is something else about this year's crop of Republicans that is not visibly apparent. According to a recent study, the delegates are less rigid in their conservatism. They are open to change on some public policies and willing to move away from the Reagan administration.
A survey of 400 delegates by the Analysis Group Inc. found that:
By 58 to 22 percent, the delegates think that US influence is more dependent on economic than military power.
More than two-thirds would keep military spending at present levels rather than increase it. This includes spending on the President's ``star wars'' program.
Some 60 percent oppose the government getting involved in the issue of abortion - by making abortions illegal, for instance.
More than three-quarters favor government action to reduce acid-rain pollution.
Because of the global ``greenhouse'' effect, 61 percent support more government action to conserve energy.
Despite such findings, the survey stresses, there is a consensus among convention Republicans on conservative ideological principles and on the country's direction.
Delegates are almost unanimous, for instance, that government should not guarantee workers a job. Almost 80 percent want to hold the line on taxes and nearly 90 percent support a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. A majority oppose registering and limiting the sale of handguns.
There is also strong support among delegates for the nomination of conservative justices to the Supreme Court, the death penalty for convicted drug dealers, prayer in the schools, the protection of foreign oil tankers in the Gulf, and military aid for the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
Still, says the survey, ``a large proportion of delegates are willing to buck the orthodoxy of the Reagan years and entertain new policy directions.''
The telephone interviews, conducted in June and July before the convention opened, were sponsored by such organizations as the Freeze Voter Education Fund (military affairs), Planned Parenthood (family planning and abortion), and the Sierra Club (environment). The questionnaire was reviewed for possible bias by Kent Jennings of the University of Michigan, an authority on delegate attitudes.
The survey seems to suggest George Bush would not alienate anyone but the conservative right in moving toward the Republican mainstream and even nominating a vice-president who is a moderate. GOP analysts in fact believe that Bush must convey a ``softer'' conservatism than did Ronald Reagan if he is to court the American electorate successfully.
Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin says that social concerns have become the dominant concern of Americans and that Bush therefore does well to speak to such issues as child care and the environment.
The survey bears out that the convention delegates as a whole are less conservative than the party activists who drafted the GOP platform. The majority does oppose government funding of abortions for poor women, but only 46 percent favor a constitutional amendment banning all abortions except when the mother's life is in danger. A high 71 percent also support abortion in the case of rape or incest (a proposed plank that was defeated in the platform committee).
Almost half of the delegates favor government policies to increase the availability of birth control information. And a huge majority (76 percent) support sex education in public schools.
Perhaps most significant is that many of the delegates have pulled back from a rigid anti-Soviet stance. A large number (42 percent) say economic competitors like Japan rather than military adversaries like the Soviet Union are the ``greatest danger'' to the nation.
There is strong support (87 percent) for continued development of the President's ``star wars'' program (the Strategic Defense Initiative). But a majority (53 percent) place a higher value on achieving a reduction in nuclear arms than on developing a space-based defense system (29 percent).