GOP Religious Right Flexes Muscle in Texas

SOCIAL conservatives dominated the Republican Party county convention here on Saturday in a likely preview of events at the statewide convention this summer.

While the strength of conservatives appears to be in organization, not numbers, moderates in the party worry that control by the religious right will only drive away voters and lose elections - at a time when the GOP seems on the verge of reversing the Democrats' longtime dominance of the Lone Star State. They say that the conservatives represent only 20 percent of the GOP primary vote.

In socially liberal Travis County, home to the University of Texas and state government, the GOP convention adopted an anti-abortion, anti-gay platform. The document details a sweeping vision of an America in which the private sector provides health care, citizens can carry handguns, English is the only official language, prayer is allowed in schools, sex education is left to parents, and immigration and federal funding for the arts are halted.

``When we can get Travis County to go for a strongly moral platform, then the whole state will,'' says Peggy Bauer, a GOP delegate who is the president of the ``pro-family'' Eagle Forum of Austin.

Moderates feel excluded

But moderates like delegate Frances Colby say the platform did not reflect the thoughts of local Republicans at all. ``This convention was packed with right-wing extremists,'' the 35-year party activist says.

Candidates are not bound by party platforms. But the documents shape public perception of what the party stands for. Ms. Colby and other moderates would like to keep Republicans focused on the economic issues that unite them, and duck divisive social issues.

``People feel excluded,'' says moderate delegate Lee Parsley. ``It's harming us in our elections.''

``I don't look at it as being exclusive,'' Ms. Bauer responds. ``I look at it as standing for principles. Whoever wants to join in these principles is welcome. But I don't think we can lower our standards for the purpose of being inclusive.''

That view was challenged in the Resolutions Committee. As delegates in the bleachers at the high-school convention site cheered candidates' speeches, Republicans appeared before the committee meeting in a locker room to voice anguished protests against the platform document.

``We're Christians. We go to church. We're average, decent, hard-working people,'' one gay Republican told the committee.

``Where do gay people fit into society?'' his partner of four years asked. Receiving no answer, he told the committee: ``Your silence says everything.''

Another speaker accused the religious right of wanting a theocracy. ``The last time we had a theocracy in this county, the barbecue in Salem tasted pretty bad,'' he said.

History of clashes

Mr. Parsley says moderates and right-wingers first clashed at the convention four years ago. The moderates prevailed.

Two years later, the religious right was better organized, but still failed to gain control of the committee structure.

This year, moderates say, the Capital City Christian Coalition rented a house in Austin to train its people in how to take over precinct meetings.

``They worked to turn out their vote,'' Parsley says. This ensured conservative control of committees. They prevented moderates from removing anti-abortion and anti-gay planks from the platform. But, he adds, conservative strength does not indicate a trend in voter beliefs.

Indeed, there were indications that a pro-choice stand would not deprive candidates of party support. One plank was added to assure candidates that they need not agree with the whole platform to receive campaign contributions from the state and local party organizations.

``We're having so much trouble recruiting candidates to run,'' a conservative delegate remarked in arguing for the plank.

Congressional candidate Jo Baylor noted that ``everyone in this room is [anti-abortion].''

But in an interview after her address to the convention, she admitted that she is pro-choice, though against federal funding for abortion.

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