Early Jostling for 2000 Reveals GOP Divisions

Conclave this weekend in Iowa points up rift between social and fiscal conservatives as party begins quest to retake White House.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With wheat fields waving on two giant video screens, Pink Floyd pounding though the darkened convention hall, and red, white, and blue spotlights crisscrossing the crowd of more than 2,000 delegates, Iowa this weekend kicked off the search for a Republican presidential contender for the year 2000.

With the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses still almost two years off, it was a bit early for even the most seasoned political pundits. But for the Republican Party, fractured ideologically and without a crown prince for the first time in more than three decades, the political exercise provided a necessary venue to vet differences and call for unity.

"We also have to fire up the party activists for the midterm elections," says Steve Grubbs, Iowa Republican Party chairman.

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Even though Republicans control the House and the Senate, 32 of the nation's 50 governors' offices, and are poised to consolidate domination of the once Democratic South, the party's got problems. The Reagan coalition of anti-abortion social conservatives and the more traditional, fiscally oriented social moderates are more deeply divided than ever. And that gap threatens to undermine not only the GOP's presidential hopes for 2000, but in a worst-case scenario, its control over Congress as well.

"The Republican Party will succeed if it has a strong agenda that unifies and motivates both currents within the Republican river, the economic conservatives and the social conservatives," says Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri.

Riding endorsements from Christian conservatives, Mr. Ashcroft was one of nine potential presidential wannabes strutting their stuff at this political beauty contest. Mingling with a collection of plaid-shirted supporters, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander urged Washington to end its "war on parents."

1996's flat-tax guru Steve Forbes threw his new pitch to refocus "our children's shattered moral compass" and end the "evil of abortion." And Ohio Congressman John Kasich touted his populist plea to "make government less important and people more important."

But with purported front-runners Texas Gov. George W. Bush, former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, and Arizona Sen. John McCain passing on this "first in the nation gala," many dismissed this field as the B-team - well-intentioned long shots.

BUT the GOP's future direction and internal fault lines were embedded in their pleas to the Iowa faithful. Almost unanimously they decried the nation's moral decay and called for a reassertion of American "virtues" (the word values, says one political operative, now carries "simply too much baggage.")

They also focused their fire on President Clinton's "moral failures." New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith accused him of turning the "downstairs of the White House, into the upstairs of a frat house," while Ashcroft assailed him for "toasting the tyrants who sent tanks to Tiananmen Square."

And while they pitched to the right on social issues, most were also careful to tout their economic credentials. John Kasich, head of the House Budget Committee, took credit for doing away with the federal deficit. Alexander called for a tripling of the tax deduction for parents with preschoolers.

Still, the tension between the social and fiscal conservatives on the floor was palpable. Lumir Dostal, a moderate Republican and Linn County supervisor, joked that his wife would have to "sit on his coattails" during the debate over the party platform, which was crafted mostly by religious conservatives.

"Those special-interest groups always show up, but none of them could win an office if they had to," says Mr. Dostal.

In 1996, exit polls showed about 60 percent of the participants in Iowa's Republican caucus fell into the moderate camp, while 40 percent could be characterized as religious conservatives.

Tensions between the two factions erupted nationally last month. Radio evangelist Jim Dobson and other religious conservative leaders accused Republicans in Congress of paying only token attention to their issues.

If they didn't get more action, they threatened to tell their voters to stay home in November. "That would have a devastating effect on the Republican Party, so the threat is serious, but it would also be enormously self-destructive," says GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

Congressional leaders still took note and put at the top of their summer agenda passing a ban on late-term abortions over President Clinton's veto, elimination of the National Endowment of the Arts, and doing away with the so-called "marriage penalty."

With the message received, the tone at the Iowa convention softened some. At a luncheon of Iowa's Christian Coalition, national leader Randy Tate insisted religious conservatives won't tolerate being taken for granted. Nonetheless, he said they had to stay active: Withdrawing from the political arena would be "music to the ears of liberals."

While social conservatives may feel temporarily appeased, some GOP pundits worry the overall shift of the party more toward their social agenda could alienate key voters in the suburbs and the Northeast. "The question is whether the party can find a nominee that can bridge those gaps," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

In 1996, the once moderate Bob Dole moved to the right to appease social conservatives and ended up losing credibility with part of the center needed to win the general election. McInturff says that's in part because both Mr. Dole and former President George Bush had a "fairly tin ear" to the needs of the GOP's fragile coalition. But he says a new generation of leaders, like Kasich, McCain, and Governor Bush, were raised balancing that tension. "I personally feel no tension, no tension at all," says Kasich.

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