SAN DIEGO — The abortion debate grabbed the headlines, but what Republican leaders want the public to focus on is soon-to-be presidential nominee Bob Dole's proposed tax cut and economic plan.
"I'd make that 80 or 90 percent of the campaign," says House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "That's the plank I'd reproduce as a brochure."
Now that the GOP's nearly 2,000 delegates have approved the quadrennial platform, such technical talk of "planks," or sections of the party's agenda, can subside. But the content of the entire platform bears scrutiny.
"The platform is the forum for ideological discussion," says a delegate from Connecticut. "That's why [it] becomes important. Once every four years people get together and try to set a tone for where the party is and where it's going."
This year, there is no doubt of religious conservatives' clout. Not only does the platform still call for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, it now also calls for punishment of doctors who perform abortions and for a ban on a type of late-term abortion.
And in a victory over pro-abortion-rights Republicans, conservatives kept out language - against the wishes of Mr. Dole - proclaiming "tolerance" for those who believe abortion does not belong in the platform at all.
But in declaring a platform victory, religious conservatives go beyond the abortion section. Among the sections they cite:
*Education. Four years ago, the GOP platform highlighted President Bush's America 2000, a plan to help achieve national education goals.
This year, the platform states that "the federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula" and calls for repeal of Goals 2000, the Clinton administration's version of America 2000 and a favorite target of the Christian right.
*Immigration. For the first time, the platform calls for a constitutional amendment or "constitutionally valid legislation" declaring that children born in the United States of undocumented aliens do not automatically get citizenship.
*Affirmative action. The platform rejects any preferential treatment for employment or education based on race or gender.
Some Republican analysts reject the notion that religious conservatives such as Pat Buchanan "won" the platform. "I read [press coverage] of 'this Buchananite platform,' then I read the alleged Buchananite elements, and they all struck me as being ... just standard conservative elements - you know, abolish the Department of Education, opposition to Goals 2000, no US troops under United Nations command," says Republican strategist William Kristol, no fan of Dole's presidential campaign. "Those are the Dole talking points, not Buchanan."
Grab-bag of views
In the end, the Republican platform is a giant ink-blot test, a grab-bag of views that contains something for every Republican. For those who like the idea of amending the Constitution, the platform contains no fewer than seven proposals for amendments - reflecting some Republicans' desire to go over the heads of judges and cast certain conservative principles in constitutional stone.
Lest Mr. Buchanan think he got everything he wanted, though, he might consider the section endorsing international free trade, which contains barely a nod to Buchanan's opposition to the new global trade structures.
The statement warning that "Republicans will not allow the World Trade Organization to undermine United States sovereignty" is mere "boilerplate," says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and an author of the 1992 GOP platform.
In addition, says Mr. Pitney, some items in a platform are just throwaways to keep one or another constituency - or even a single person - quiet.
The 1988 platform, for example, called for term limits for politicians just to satisfy Tommy Hartnett, a South Carolina Republican. "In 1988, no one considered term limits a really important issue," says Pitney. "But later, some Republicans were glad it was there."
Mr. Barbour, the GOP chairman, argues that every Republican contender for the '96 nomination favored a balanced budget, lower taxes, less spending, rational regulatory reform, welfare reform, educational reform, entitlement reform, and tort reform.
So, he says, one could call this a "Wilsonesque" platform or a "Specteresque" platform, referring to GOP also-rans Pete Wilson and Arlen Specter, both of them moderates on social issues.
Honing in on tax plan
But the lead sections of the platform leave no doubt as to what Dole and running mate Jack Kemp will highlight as they kick off their joint effort to unseat President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore: lower taxes, smaller government, and a balanced budget.
The tax-cut package includes an across-the-board 15 percent cut to marginal tax rates, a $500-per-child family tax credit, and a reduction in the top tax rate on capital gains by 50 percent.
The platform also echoes Dole's call for a "dramatically downsized" Internal Revenue Service, with the savings going to worthwhile programs such as drug enforcement. The question is how much the public is demanding these changes.