HOUSTON — THE Republicans began what could prove to be a thorny week of platform-drafting on Monday, a week ahead of the party's national convention that President Bush is counting on to bounce him back into the running for re-election.
With Mr. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle lagging in the polls behind Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Republican leaders hope a harmonious convention and a unified party will persuade voters to give their ticket a new look.
But pro-choice forces and conservative Pat Buchanan are trying to make things hot for the Republicans, apparently unconvinced that falling in line behind the president is the best thing for their cause at this point.
The most likely flash point is the emotional and contentious issue of abortion.
While the Democrats support a woman's right to abortion on demand, the current Republican platform backs a constitutional ban on the procedure, and Bush has pledged that the abortion plank will not be rewritten in Houston.
The National Republican Coalition for Choice and Republicans for Choice, two groups that support keeping abortions legal, have organized a full week of protests in Houston to dramatize their cause and put pressure on the party to ease its stand.
Opposing their efforts will be the anti-abortion Republican National Coalition for Life and the militant Operation Rescue.
They argue that the damage done to the party by waffling on abortion would be far greater than any benefit from broadening its appeal to abortion rights advocates.
But elder Republican statesman Barry Goldwater, the party's 1964 presidential nominee, warned last week that Bush would sink the party if he stuck with the current plank.
"My prophecy is the convention will go down in a shambles, as will the election," the retired five-term Arizona senator said in a letter made public last week.
"If the president believes that the introduction of his position before the platform committee at the convention will result in nothing but smooth going, he's as wrong as wrong can be," Mr. Goldwater said.
A second group of Republicans, who favor keeping abortion legal, vowed last week to seek a convention floor fight if the platform committee leaves the abortion plank intact.
The group also suggested a novel compromise: that the platform say nothing on abortion whatever.
Sen. John Seymour of California, one of the group's organizers, said the suggestion was meant to unify the party rather than divide it.
But he acknowledged that when he informed Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the platform committee chairman, of the group's plans, Nickles gestured as if being hung by his necktie.
"I don't know whether he was talking about his neck or mine," Mr. Seymour quipped.