DES MOINES, Iowa -- When Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and former Gov. Tom Kean of New Jersey in effect hijacked last weekend's Iowa straw poll on 1996 Republican presidential prospects to warn of the religious right's growing influence in the GOP, they were demonstrating the potential for a split in the party that could hand President Clinton a second term.
Neither Specter nor Kean has been regarded a likely presidential candidate for 1996, but both of them nevertheless accepted the invitation of the Iowa Republican Party to speak at a rally as the straw vote was taken. Their names were among 23 Republicans listed in the poll won, as expected, by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. Specter got six votes and Kean two, again to nobody's surprise.
What brought them to Des Moines was the chance to address a nationwide audience through C-SPAN, which covered the event, about an issue that is more pertinent right now than the early scramblings of little-known Republicans to head the party ticket -- or be No. 2 on it -- two years from now.
Ever since the Republican National Convention of 1992 gave prominence to two of the religious right's favorites, Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson, and their moralistic, exclusionary preachings, many of the vanishing breed of Republican moderates have been blaming the defeat of President George Bush on the bad taste that convention left in the mouths of millions of viewers.
Buchanan and other Republicans on the far right spectrum of the party have called that interpretation of Bush's loss hogwash. Rather than being chased away, they have dug in, taking control of party machinery in at least 20 states, including Iowa, and have continued to demand acceptance of their views on such issues as abortion and the rights and status of homosexuals.
Specter made a calculated decision to come right into the lion's den and beard him, in the obvious hope that his concerns would thereby achieve a wider audience. Kean had the same idea, apparently independent of Specter, and they delivered a one-two punch to the notion of exclusion as a winning Republican tactic for recapture of the White House in 1996.
But many Iowa Republicans were in no mood to be lectured at. They booed Specter when he charged that members of the religious right "violated the basic American principle of separation of church and state" by attempting to force their beliefs on others in the party, or to force them out if they refused to go along.
Kean, speaking in a more conciliatory tone, nevertheless warned his fellow Republicans that "we must be careful, very careful. Because if we say that every woman who has an abortion is a 'baby killer,' and that every son and daughter who is gay is an abomination, when we imply that women who demand equality are somehow violating their fundamental nature . . . we relegate ourselves to the sidelines."
Some in the crowd came up to Specter later and said they agreed with him. But Republicans generally are likely to be in a defensive posture toward "these new converts to our cause," as Kean called them, because they are under sharp attack from outside the party, by Democrats hoping to exploit the GOP rift in the ranks.
The charge last week by Rep. Vic Fazio of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, that "the religious right" was attempting "to impose their personal religious views and ethical beliefs on the party system" has been met with countercharges of "Christian-bashing."
Former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, another speaker, said it was "outrageous for leading Democrats to suggest that religion of any kind is a disqualification from the political process." Fazio was not saying that; only that no one in politics should make his particular religious views on any set of issues qualification for continued membership in his party.
In any event, the Republicans appear to have enough voices of their own to challenge the religious right without Fazio and other Democrats having to coax the fight along -- and enough political savvy to make sure their warnings are heard by a wide audience.