Dole's Delicate Dance: Uniting Divided GOP

He must appeal to right without alienating electorate

As Bob Dole gets ready for a fateful four days at the Republican convention here, he faces a problem that has bedeviled GOP presidential nominees for a generation: how to handle unrest on the right.

Ever since Barry Goldwater topped the ticket in 1964, conservative forces have become increasingly important within the Republican Party. Their growing power has been reflected in convention disputes, as sitting presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford found when conservatives opposed dtente with the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan and George Bush were rebuked on taxes.

For Mr. Dole, the will of the right may be more problematic than it was for his predecessors. The retired senator desperately hopes to avoid the kind of clash over social issues that divided the party's 1992 convention in Houston. And after months of faltering on the campaign trail, he needs to rally the party behind him.

To those ends, Dole this week has bowed to the cultural conservatives in the party on such issues as abortion and immigration, and appealed to the economic conservatives with a bold plan to cut taxes. That may pave the way for a smoother convention, but could make the road ahead bumpier. "The forces that control the party cannot offer the candidate the electoral votes he needs to win," says Eric Schockman, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Throughout his campaign, Dole has maintained a strategy mapped out by his mentor, Richard Nixon: Run to the right to capture the nomination, then drift back to the center in the general election.

There wasn't much drifting going on in San Diego this week, however, as GOP activists gathered to set the stage for next week's convention. On Monday, abortion foes trounced an attempt by Dole allies to introduce a "declaration of tolerance" on the subject into the party platform.

Back in June, when the nominee-to-be first called for the language, he said it was nonnegotiable: "I intend to run on a platform that reflects my views." But before the first day of committee work on the document was over, Dole's resolution evaporated like morning fog over the San Diego marina.

The deal over the abortion language may well force the Dole campaign into a trade-off among GOP voting blocs. The presumed nominee may have solidified his hard-right base by agreeing to their demands, but he also angered moderates, many of whom are women. The consequences may be stiff.

About 60 to 75 percent of Republicans support a woman's right to choose abortion. With Republicans now in control of Congress, many of those voters worry about abortion's legal status. In 1992, 28 percent of GOP women voters backed Bill Clinton.

"I have been Republican all my life, but if this keeps up, I will consider voting for someone else this fall," says a woman in the platform hall. A member of the GOP presidential round table, a major fund-raising body, she requested anonymity.

On another major policy front, Dole hopes to silence his GOP critics and rally the party behind him with his ambitious economic agenda. Economic conservatives are happy, but some analysts doubt the tax-cut package will help Dole capture the middle-class vote that was critical to Mr. Reagan's success in the 1980s and the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994.

Over his career, Dole has been an ardent deficit hawk, and polls show as many as 70 percent of voters view his tax-cut promise as an election-year gimmick.

"He's the wrong guy with the wrong speech at the wrong time," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Dole gave the speech people wanted George Bush to give in 1992. There is no audience for change in 1996."

The biggest danger in Dole's appeal to conservatives, especially the religious right, may be the impact on the party. When Mr. Bush lost in 1992, party conservatives blamed him for being too moderate. Two years later, the right wing dominated the party's comeback in the 1994 midterm elections.

The same could happen this year. If Dole swings back toward the center after the convention, and then loses, the party could slide even further into the far right's control and lose its base in the center.

"What 1964 was for the Democrats, 1996 could be for the Republicans," says Mr. Schockman, drawing a parallel with the point when the Democratic Party came to be dominated by the far left.

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