WASHINGTON -- For Republicans hoping to soften the party's strict stance against abortion, this weekend's big gathering of religious conservatives provided little in the way of encouragement.
As the GOP presidential contenders courted members of the Christian Coalition, they went out of their way to demonstrate the strength of their anti-abortion ardor.
Sen. Phil Gramm set the tone at Friday's opening session of the coalition's Road to Victory conference. He waved a copy of a pledge declaring that "the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed" and challenged Bob Dole to join him in signing it.
Mr. Dole declined but underscored his determination to "protect the sanctity of all human life."
"Don't look at pledges. Look at the record," said the Senate Republican leader, referring to his history of opposing abortion.
Patrick J. Buchanan, whose outspoken views on the subject have earned him a solid core of supporters, dismissed both Mr. Gramm and Mr. Dole as latecomers to the cause.
In the keynote address at last night's coalition dinner, he criticized both men for having voted to confirm President Clinton's two Supreme Court nominees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, who support abortion rights.
"When the time came to stand up for life in '93 and '94, they stood instead with Bill Clinton," Mr. Buchanan said.
"The Good Book tells us: Not by their honeyed words but by their fruits shall ye know them."
By turning up the heat on the abortion issue, this weekend's conference may signal trouble for efforts by Republicans who want to modify the party's anti-abortion language in hopes of attracting more support from moderate voters.
The 4,000 delegates demonstrated the intensity of their feelings by leaping to their feet and roaring in approval as speaker after speaker warned Republicans that if they move away from strong opposition to abortion, they face political disaster.
"If they turn their back on us, I want to tell you, brothers and sisters, we ought to turn our backs on them," former Nixon White House aide Charles W. Colson told the cheering, whistling crowd.
Maryland Republican Alan L. Keyes, another presidential hopeful, advised the delegates to ignore warnings that abortion is a divisive issue that could prevent Republicans from regaining the White House.
"If it's the right path, God will decide if victory will be ours," he said.
Phyllis Schlafly, a leading opponent of abortion, stressed the importance of keeping abortion rights supporters off the 1996 GOP ticket, a position taken earlier this year by Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed.
"We are not going to let the Arlen Specters, Christine Whitmans and Pete Wilsons take the pro-life plank out of the platform," she added.
Senator Specter of Pennsylvania and Governor Wilson of California are the only GOP presidential candidates who support abortion rights; so does Mrs. Whitman, the New Jersey governor, sometimes mentioned as a possible vice-presidential nominee.
Hisses and boos greeted the mention of Mr. Specter, a critic of the religious conservative movement and the only GOP contender not invited to address the conference.
Criticizing Mr. Dole, Mrs. Schlafly, a Gramm supporter, said, "It's not enough that candidates will tell you they have a pro-life record. The record looks to the past. The pledge looks to the future."
Five presidential candidates have signed the pledge, promising to retain the strong anti-abortion language of the 1992 GOP platform. They are Mr. Gramm, Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Keyes, Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California and Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar.
In remarks to the coalition yesterday, Mr. Lugar referred to his abortion views only in passing. Instead, he chose to focus on the dangers of legalized gambling, which, he said, "weakens our ability to teach our children the basic . . . Cal Ripken values of hard work, patience, human achievement and personal responsibility."
To applause, Mr. Lugar added, "We cannot tolerate the get-rich-quick symbolism of gambling, while pleading with our children to avoid other tosses of the dice that lead to unhealthy living and destructive behavior."