Moderates Struggle for GOP Clout

Some moderate Republicans gathered here in San Diego have a novel explanation for their relative lack of clout: sports and music.

Months ago, while Christian conservatives were positioning themselves to become GOP delegates and planning to dominate the platform-creation process, moderates may have been doing other things. "Moderate Republicans - they're not as committed," says Woody Bliss, a pro-abortion rights delegate from Connecticut. "They don't get involved. They'd rather play tennis, play golf, or go to the opera.

"Folks on the other side, a lot of them are reached through the church, and it integrates better with their whole life," explains Mr. Bliss as he gets a drink from a vendor outside the San Diego Convention Center.

How to foster more "moderate activism" - which seems almost an oxymoron - remains a core challenge for moderate Republican leaders, who worry about checking the growing political clout of Christian conservatives and making sure the GOP can still be a home for people who are both fiscally conservative and libertarian on social issues such as abortion.

The success of three pro-life conservative Republicans in Senate primaries this week underscores this concern. But it also points up the appeal among Republican primary voters of the conservative agenda, with its emphasis on family, faith, and values.

At what point do moderate Republicans, who view themselves as the "silent majority," say enough is enough and join the ranks of activists? Bill Rader, a pro-abortion-rights colleague of Bliss's in the Connecticut delegation, says they'll vote with their feet.

"A lot of them are going to fight back by either not voting or by voting for [President] Clinton," says Mr. Rader. "It happened [four years ago]. They voted for [Ross] Perot."

Signal to moderates

But Susan Cullman, head of the Republican Coalition for Choice, which fought unsuccessfully to get the party to remove the anti-abortion plank from its platform, is more sanguine.

She says the compromise solution on the abortion issue worked out here this week, in which the pro-abortion-rights Republican position will be outlined in an addendum to the platform, will send a signal to moderate Republicans that they do belong in the party.

"It should give them the impetus, the encouragement, to come to the convention four years from now as delegates," says Ms. Cullman. "This time, we pro-choice delegates just didn't have the numbers to get the plank out."

Another key to boosting moderate involvement is for the Republican Party to choose a presidential nominee who favors abortion rights, she adds. "It's very hard for pro-choice Republicans to want to become delegates unless they have a pro-choice nominee, because it is the nominee who collects delegates around the country," she says.

Indeed, it is the delegate selection process - a complicated system that varies from state to state - that has rewarded the foresight and hard work of the Christian Coalition, the premier political-religious action group.

Coalition chapters began preparing for the convention a year ago, running workshops to train people at the grass-roots level in how to become delegates and ensure that the coalition's agenda is emphasized in the platform.

The Christian Coalition has also set itself up here as a virtual shadow political party, with its own "war room" to coordinate its delegates and a communications center that will issue a daily message and newsletter. According to a top coalition official, 487 of the convention's 1,990 delegates are "Christian Coalition delegates" - thus the need for 102 "floor whips," who will keep coalition delegates informed throughout the convention.

Both sides fortify forces

Pro-abortion-rights Republicans who attended the Houston convention four years ago say the Christian Coalition has only gotten more sophisticated this year - but, they add, so have the pro-choice forces. They, too, now have their own war room, floor manager, and digital pagers, but they decline to name the number of delegates they're working with. "Let's just say, compared with the Christian Coalition, it's peanuts," says a GOP abortion-rights activist.

Even if many convention delegates say they would prefer that the plank calling for a constitutional amendment banning abortion be removed, the operative question is how many are more loyal to candidate Bob Dole (who opposes abortion) than to abortion rights. On that score, most moderate Republicans line up with Dole.

In the long run, as long as delegates are selected in a way that favors activists (read conservatives), typically by caucus, moderates will be at a disadvantage at the convention and in drafting the party platform, an important ideological statement. "It's all about rules," says Clyde Wilcox, an expert on the religious right. But changing the rules could be difficult, given the national party's desire to give state parties wide latitude.

One development that could spur change within the GOP would be a sweeping loss in November, not only at the presidential level, but also in Congress, statehouses, and state legislatures.

This strategy of "the worse, the better" may please some moderates, who would love to see the religious conservative agenda falter. But if this week's Senate primaries are any indication, conservatives are still flying high - at least within the Republican Party.

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