HOUSTON — WHEN the curtain rang down last night on a carefully orchestrated Republican convention, party strategists had what they wanted most: a strong show of unity to launch the final leg of George Bush's uphill campaign.
But beneath the smooth surface of unanimity, a week of convention squabbling has revealed a party more divided than it has been at any time since the start of the Reagan revolution 12 years ago. With or without a victory in November, some Republican strategists worry, a contest for the soul of the Republican Party is about to begin.
"Now that the cold war and Reagan aren't here and social issues become larger for liberals and conservatives, how do you keep it all together?" asks former columnist and Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan. "I do think we're at a watershed."
Party activists are divided over issues ranging from abortion to trade and immigration policy.
"I think that what we're agreed on is that at the federal level the tax burden is too high," Mr. Buchanan says. "Beyond that, we agree on little else."
Buchanan, who represents the nationalist conservative wing of the GOP, was the only Republican to challenge Bush in the presidential primaries.
"I think the collapse of communism and the inability of the Bush administration to provide dynamic domestic leadership have increased the centrifugal pressures," responds House minority whip Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, a spokesman for the growth-oriented wing of the GOP.
He adds: "But I wouldn't exaggerate that. I think there will be a synthesis of conservatism over the next couple of years that will give us a new framework for the 21st century. But Pat, frankly, may not be comfortable with it."
The Republican Party, from Richard Nixon through Ronald Reagan, was united by two main themes. One was a staunch anti-communism that emphasized massive defense expenditures.
The other was an economic program, based in theory at least on scaling back government and stimulating economic growth through spending controls, balanced budgets, and tax cuts. Reagan's strength
Despite disagreements around the edges, weak Democratic opposition and the strong leadership of Mr. Reagan kept party unity intact through the end of the Reagan era.
The end of the cold war revived historic divisions between internationalists like Gingrich and Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, and isolationists like Buchanan, who preaches protectionism and disengagement.
"The world market is real and technology means we really do live on one planet and any kind of attempt to isolate from that is really crazy," says Gingrich, who represents the GOP majority.
In economic policy, Republicans are divided over whether to give priority to cutting taxes or cutting the deficit to spur growth.
"The argument tends to be, shall we emphasize growth or the deficit," says Jeffrey Bell, a former Kemp strategist. "Kemp is on the growth side and [Sen. Phil] Gramm [of Texas] is on the spending cut side. Most people in the party are for a mix."
Cultural issues are potentially the most divisive. Conventioneers in Houston, who are strongly anti-abortion, booed the otherwise- popular Massachusetts Gov. William Weld when he said he was pro-choice. But the real division, at least by 1996, may not be over abortion itself but over whether the party should make a major issue of it, says Mr. Bell.
Political analysts say party divisions tend to be issue-specific and are not deep, cross-cutting cleavages that will rend the party in two. Large majorities still agree on the basic issues, like opposition to abortion, while the Buchanan and especially the Weld wings of the party still represent distinct minorities. But the increase in party factionalism will not be without consequence. A big hazard
One hazard is that Republicans may end up, like Democrats, having to accommodate too many special interests at once. If allowed to widen, the divisions could weaken the competitive advantage the party has enjoyed for over a decade.
"There just isn't going to be the cohesiveness within the party that would allow the kind of concerted attack and mobilization that took place during the 1980s period," says Colin Campbell, director of the public-policy program at Georgetown University.
Just how divided the party becomes will depend in part on whether President Bush is reelected. The consequences of a Bush defeat would be compounded by the apparent absence of other leaders with the Reagan-like stature to heal the party's divisions.
"If Bush doesn't win, their divisions are likely to become acute," says Professor Campbell of the Republicans.
"All of these fault lines are there and what we're going to have is one big last hurrah of that great coalition in '92 when we all come together," says a pessimistic Buchanan. "But this [convention] could be the last roll call of the Reagan coalition."