Most people think of Kansas simply as Bob Dole country, as solid and uncomplicated as the stark horizons where golden wheat fields meet blue sky.
Today, however, Republican politics in Kansas are in turmoil following presidential hopeful Dole's abrupt departure from the United States Senate.
Strife within the party is intensifying as upstart conservative activists square off against more moderate establishmentarians in a primary next Tuesday. The race marks the beginning of Kansas's most turbulent political season in more than three decades, with both Senate seats and all four US House seats open.
"With Dole's seat coming open this is a prime opportunity for the two factions to slug it out," says Ken Collier, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.
The uncompromising views of candidates and voters in the two camps have raised fears among the GOP leadership that a growing ideological chasm could fragment the party in Kansas and nationwide. "Just as conservatives have no intention of changing their views, moderates don't either," says Kansas Gov. Bill Graves. "If we divide the party as a result, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face."
Nowhere are the tensions greater than in the close race for the Senate seat vacated by Dole.
The race is pitting a conservative young firebrand, US House freshman Rep. Sam Brownback (R) against the more experienced and moderate Sen. Sheila Frahm, the lieutenant governor whom Governor Graves appointed to fill temporarily Dole's seat.
Mr. Brownback, a former Kansas agriculture secretary, was swept into office in November 1994 by a growing contingent of conservatives who are seizing control of the Kansas GOP apparatus at the grass-roots level.
A self-proclaimed leader of this party "new guard," Brownback has moved aggressively in Washington to establish his conservative credentials. He founded the 60-member New Federalist group to downsize the federal bureaucracy, lobbied for tax and budget cuts, and supported reforming Congress with term limits and new rules on campaign finance.
Brownback paints a stark contrast between his "core philosophy" and that of the party's old guard. "This race is a microcosm of what is going on nationally in the Republican Party," he says. "Do you stay with the status quo and nip and tuck around the edges? Or do you make real changes to get the country going in the right direction?"
True to his gung-ho style, Brownback jumped into the race two days after Dole announced his retirement from the Senate in May, ignoring requests by Graves that he hold off.
Clearly miffed by Brownback's impatience, Graves then appointed his close political ally Ms. Frahm to Dole's seat. Frahm is ensconced in the party's establishment, having risen up its ranks from a local school board to become majority leader in the Kansas state Senate. Although fiscally conservative, she has voted for some tax increases and, like Graves, she is pro-choice.
"I am a Republican in the tradition of Kansas Republicans," says the even-tempered Frahm in an interview. Frahm emphasizes her experience, her work ethic, and her willingness to pull together with Republicans of differing ideologies. Portraying herself as a friend of the common farmer and businessperson, she says she's "the person the people from Kansas know and trust."
Few pundits can predict the outcome of the primary, with polls conflicting over who is in the lead. But they agree that the results will offer an important indicator of the political leanings of Republican voters here and nationwide, and possibly influence Dole's choice of a running mate.
"The Republican Party much more than the Democratic Party is seeking out its true identity at this moment in our history," says Graves. "The question now is whether it is still swinging to the right or moving back towards the center."
If Brownback wins, it could spell trouble for Graves and his moderate camp, which is already under attack from conservative party officials in Kansas.
A victory by Frahm, in contrast, would suggest that the average Kansan may not be ready for the radical conservatism personified by the party's right wing, analysts say. But while this would bolster party moderates, it might drive some conservatives away.
"I am a staunch, hard-nosed Republican, but it's sad to see now what the party has to offer," says Randall Allen, at a department store in Newton, Kan. "We need leadership more than ever."
Conservatives have also voiced wariness over Dole. "The concern over Dole among conservative new-guard activists like myself is that he will compromise too much," says Jim Sappington, GOP chairman of Sedgwick County in the Wichita area.
Other conservative activists warn that unless Dole chooses a conservative, anti-abortion runningmate they will defect from the Republican Party.