ST. LOUIS — ST. LOUIS -- The Republican National Committee elected lawyer-lobbyist Haley Barbour as its new chairman yesterday, only hours after the outgoing chairman bluntly warned GOP leaders they are courting political disaster if the party maintains its staunch opposition to abortion.
Richard N. Bond, in an unusually open acknowledgment of the problems facing the party, said an image of intolerance threatens to drive millions of people away from voting Republican in the future.
"Our job is to win elections and not to cling to intolerances that zealots call principles," he said in a carefully crafted speech essentially calling on party leaders to abandon their long-standing commitment to outlawing abortion.
Opposition to abortion was one of the defining tenets of the Republican Party in the Reagan-Bush era, and a strong anti-abortion plank has been part of every Republican platform since 1980.
But Mr. Bond told GOP leaders they must face the fact that their party's stated goal is essentially a lost cause, because the right to abortion is the law of the land, which President Clinton and the Democratic Congress are committed to uphold, "and because it is impossible to take a right away from anyone."
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, in a luncheon speech to the RNC, echoed Mr. Bond's call for an end to single-issue "litmus tests," without specifically mentioning abortion.
"We've got a problem with this issue," the Kansas senator said later to reporters.
Mr. Dole, the nation's highest ranking GOP official, said the new party chairman should sit down with various party factions and try to work out a solution to the abortion problem.
Mr. Barbour, who calls himself "pro-life," told a news conference last night, "We Republicans cannot let abortion be the threshold issue of Republicanism."
George Bush's 1992 election defeat has been blamed, at least in part, on defections by working women and other voters over the issue of abortion and the heavy emphasis on "family values" at last summer's GOP convention.
Mr. Bond himself was criticized for being intolerant after he said at the convention that Republicans were the real Americans and "these other people are not," referring to gays, liberals, feminists and other elements associated with the Democratic Party. In that sense, his remarks yesterday were reminiscent of former GOP Chairman Lee Atwater's deathbed renunciation of negative politics.
The outgoing chairman, while describing himself as "pro-life," said Republicans "are seen by millions only as the party that wants to limit a woman's right to choose. . . . Like it or not, the abortion question has become a defining issue for our party."
The 165 members of the RNC sat in stunned silence as he went on to suggest that the party "refocus" its attention onto issues such as sex education, traditionally regarded as anathema by many conservatives.
But Mr. Bond got a standing ovation when he said abortion should be relegated to the status of a state-level issue, so that Republicans can "return our national platform discussion to the issues we as a party win and lose elections on: peace, prosperity and national defense."
Abortion-rights Republicans were quick to praise Mr. Bond's remarks as a correct, if overdue, concession to political reality. But there was withering criticism from some conservatives and anti-abortion leaders.
In his address, moments before nominating speeches for the five men who competed for the job of RNC chairman, Mr. Bond said his successor "will not be able to avoid this issue."
After three ballots, Mr. Barbour defeated E. Spencer Abraham, a former aide to Dan Quayle and co-chairman of the party's congressional committee, by a margin of 90-57. Former congressman and Army Secretary Howard "Bo" Callaway of Colorado finished third. Former Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft and Oregon state chairman Craig Berkman withdrew after running poorly in the initial rounds.
A syrupy-voiced Southerner who has never held elective office, Mr. Barbour, 45, worked as a political aide in the Reagan White House and ran unsuccessfully in 1982 for the U.S. Senate from Mississippi.
He hails from Yazoo City, Miss., where he maintains a law office, but spends most of his time in Washington, where he runs a lobbying law firm with former Bush White House aide Ed Rogers and appears frequently as a political commentator on television. He said he is selling his interest in the law firm to his partners.
In his successful campaign for the party chairmanship, a two-year post that pays $150,000 annually, he stressed the need for party-building on the state and local level after 12 years of White House control that focused the party's activities mainly on presidential politics.