WASHINGTON -- A group of Republican activists meeting privately last month to help the party fashion some policy positions produced one statement that spoke of "fairness for all Americans," a favored phrase of the prose stylists of both parties. But one member of the group quickly moved to amend the document to read "fairness for all Americans, born and unborn."
The statement didn't even deal with the abortion issue. But when two other members of the group of about 30 Republicans quickly moved to second the amendment, the rest shrugged and let it pass. "There was no point in making a big fight about it," one of the conferees said later.
But the gesture, meaningless though it may have been, demonstrated once again how much of a problem the abortion issue represents for the Republican Party -- and, more to the point, illustrates the great divide within the party between the pragmatists who want to win elections and the ideologues who want what they consider moral purity on issues.
That same division also has been clear in the recent statements by two Republican governors of major states, Pete Wilson of California and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, that there should be no abortion plank in the party's 1996 platform.
Both Wilson and Whitman essentially take a libertarian position on the issue. "The conservative position," Wilson told a group of reporters, "is that government ought to stay out of people's lives to a very considerable extent." Said Whitman in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: "It's not a partisan political issue, and it doesn't belong in a party platform."
As it happens, their view reflects that of most Americans, if opinion polls are to be believed. There is a strong consensus for the proposition that the less government intrusion in the abortion decision, the better.
More specifically, the electorate's view was clearly reflected in the Supreme Court decision in the Pennsylvania case in which the court held that no "undue burden" should be imposed by government on women who seek abortions.
But neither Wilson nor Whitman nor other like-minded Republicans -- and there are many -- have any illusions about their ability to take the abortion issue out of the 1996 platform without a bitter fight with the Republicans of the religious right who consider abortion murder, plain and simple.
The platform in 1992, like those in 1984 and 1988, called for a prohibition against all abortions, including those in cases of rape and incest, and some of those on the right already have signaled that anything less would be considered a capitulation to what they consider an immoral position.
Thus, the problem for the Republicans in 1996 may be just what it was in 1992 -- too much focus on a social issue when the voters are looking either for answers on domestic problems that have some broad application or for some new national leadership.
Even when the abortion issue has been at its most heated, the number of voters who claim to make their decision on that single question is small -- under 15 percent in most polls -- and about equally divided between those who favor and those who oppose abortion rights.
The debate over abortion is particularly significant now because there is so much reason for Republicans to believe that President Clinton will be vulnerable in 1996.
Although he obviously has ample time to refurbish his image in the next two years, Clinton is getting consistently negative marks in surveys of opinion on his job performance.
But Whitman suggested that the party may have to go through an electoral disaster like that in 1964 to learn again the hazards of ideological extremism in a nation that is essentially centrist.
The New Jersey governor may have a special insight here because her father, Webster Todd, was a prominent moderate Republican when the hard-line conservatives supporting Barry Goldwater took control of the party.
It is, of course, always possible the Republicans will find a way to compromise the issue and avoid a bloodletting. There were some halting attempts to do that in 1992 by adding language praising "diversity" of opinion to the platform.
But even those attempts had to be abandoned in the face of the moral fervor of the religious right, and there is no reason to believe that fervor has abated since then.