GOP Platform Perilous For a Two-Way Race

THE Republican convention today takes up a highly conservative platform well suited to a three-way race for the presidency that evaporated a month ago.

The platform is proving more dangerous in the two-way race that has emerged.

Abortion is the lone issue that has threatened to open up floor debate today.

Perhaps the most revered figure in the Republican Party, Barbara Bush, has even rebuked the platform committee for including an anti-abortion plank.

But the 95-page platform is a paean to the principles of the right throughout, especially on social issues. Sandy Maisel, a political scientist from Colby College who is making a close study of both parties' platforms this year, says that the Republican platform committee was deliberately molded by the Bush campaign to capture the conservative vote. In a three-way race against Ross Perot and Bill Clinton, President Bush would need little more than the conservative base to win. Bush needs centrist votes

But against Mr. Clinton alone, Mr. Bush needs to fight for votes in the political center.

Party leaders are stressing their "big tent" philosophy that Republicans can hold diverse views on abortion, but clear majorities on the platform committee were having none of that.

Moderate Republicans, in fact, never had a chance in the platform subcommittee and committee deliberations. Conservatives had organized earlier and better to place delegates they wanted on the committee.

The contentiousness on the committee was mostly limited to the abortion issue, and Dr. Maisel says that news accounts exaggerated the profile of abortion-rights advocates there. "The choice people are very good at using media and very bad at counting [votes]. They never had a chance," Maisel says.

The conservative tone of the platform reflects the larger choice made by Bush to run as a conservative, says Maisel: "If he is going to win, he is going to win as a conservative." Bush keeps control

At a point where the platform drafters threatened to embarrass Bush, such as by calling his 1990 tax increase "a mistake," his campaign demonstrated its control over the process by forcing changes. The tax hikes were called "recessionary" instead.

The resistance to debating abortion on the convention floor today did not come primarily from the anti-abortion camp. Instead, some abortion-rights delegates were reluctant to open a debate that might embarrass Bush, said Catharine Sibble, a convention delegate from Massachusetts and an abortion-rights organizer.

Party rules require signatures from a majority of delegates in six states to bring a platform issue up for discussion on the convention floor.

The Bush camp still does not seem entirely comfortable with all the planks of its platform. Bush took a softer line on an abortion question last week, answering a hypothetical question about his granddaughter by saying it would be her own choice - "who else's could it be?"

Barbara Bush's statement was even more clearly aligned with an abortion-rights view. She called abortion a "personal choice" that the platform should not deal with.

"I agree with the Clinton analysis that they want it both ways," says James Davis, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis.

Republican Party chairman Richard Bond, at a Monitor lunch here this weekend, would not call the platform an accurate picture of his party's principles, but said instead he was satisfied if "in some cases we are a counter balance to something very, very extreme over on the Democratic side." Platforms for candidates

Party platforms are not enforceable. Few people read them, and elected officials seldom refer to them once an election is over.

But platforms can be important to a campaign. Because both sides use platforms to define themselves and each other, the essential messages in platforms filter out to the public.

Platform planks matter to candidates. Paul Tsongas, for example, negotiated to the last to win a separate plank in the Democratic platform affirming the rights of homosexuals.

Unless the GOP platform is altered today, it will call for a "human life amendment" to the Constitution banning virtually all abortions.

The platform also opposes treating homosexuals as a protected minority under civil rights statutes or allowing same-sex couples to adopt children or provide foster care. And it supports voluntary prayer in the schools and calls for neutrality toward particular religions, but not toward religion itself.

The larger themes of the platform invoke the victories at home and abroad of free markets over centralized government bureaucracies.

"Never again will people trust planners and paper shufflers more than they trust themselves," it reads.

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