Moderates on the Move

Four years ago, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld was so isolated in defending the pro-choice position on abortion at the Republican Convention in Houston that his speech was greeted with a chorus of catcalls. This year, while he and several other pro-choice governors will not speak, Mr. Weld and other GOP moderates have been far more visible and influential in the convention proceedings.

This was the year pro-choice Republican delegates dug in their heels after a series of past convention defeats and demanded to be heard.

This time Weld was joined by a number of other pro-choice governors - his old colleague Pete Wilson of California and new governors Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, and George Pataki of New York, to name a few.

After candidate-to-be Bob Dole's attempt to placate them with a "tolerance" paragraph in the platform went down to defeat in a committee dominated by Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, an ardent pro-lifer, they threatened a floor fight. The Dole campaign finally engineered a compromise, and for the first time a minority report, setting forth the pro-choice position, was published along with the platform.

A small victory perhaps. But one that certainly would not have been possible four years ago. The greater number of moderate GOP governors and the Dole campaign's determination that this convention would not be "another Houston" made it happen.

The Houston convention was a public-relations disaster for the GOP. Almost 130 people spoke, but the press riveted its attention on four conservative speeches, especially those of Patrick Buchanan, who called for a "cultural war," and vice-presidential wife Marilyn Quayle, who seemed to criticize working women. It was the last kind of impression President Bush's faltering campaign needed.

This year no effort has been spared to avoid issues Republicans do not agree on and focus instead on Dole's tax-cutting and budget-balancing plan. The Dole emphasis on tolerance and diversity has helped the moderates return to the stage.

Gen. Colin Powell, in his first political appearance, gave a speech that many commentators are comparing to that of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo at the 1984 Democratic Convention. In it he courageously reiterated his positions in support of affirmative action and abortion choice. He reminded his listeners that the battle against racism and discrimination still must be fought and won. But he called for Republicans to focus on what unites them.

New York Rep. Susan Molinari's keynote address centered on Dole's economic themes. But the choice as keynoter of a young woman and new mother was itself an effort to reach out by a party that has had trouble with women voters in recent years.

Republicans moderates - like any political faction, not easy to define - have had a tough time of it at national conventions since Ronald Reagan's day. But the San Diego convention shows they have a good deal of new talent waiting in the wings. Should Dole lose the election, however, a nasty intraparty struggle in 2000 may loom - especially given some conservatives' failure to understand that the party cannot win, or govern, without its moderate wing.

If moderates want to consolidate their small gains and recapture past influence, they will have to organize themselves more effectively and participate in primary elections more thoroughly. General Powell may be the man around whom they can unite, should he choose to play such a role.

Meanwhile, the Democrats point to the GOP platform, the choice of Jack Kemp as vice-presidential nominee, and Republican attempts to reform Medicare - and proclaim this an "extremist" party. People like Powell and Ms. Molinari are a strong argument that it just ain't so.

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