SAN DIEGO -- Four years ago, Republicans left their convention in Houston sporting a self-inflicted black eye. Hard-line speeches by GOP conservatives etched an image of extremism and intolerance that, in the view of many politicians, hurt the party's chances in the fall.
This year, Bob Dole's convention managers were determined to prevent a rerun of that performance, whatever the cost.
On Monday, they found out the price: To avoid a prolonged fight over the party's most divisive issue -- abortion -- Dole was forced to give in to the platform demands of social conservatives.
"The key thing was that we cleared the decks," said former Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, a senior Dole adviser. "Hopefully, we never come back to this issue."
While the platform writers were putting final touches on their work last night, it was clear that Dole had suffered a setback.
The nominee-to-be pointedly did not mention the abortion fracas as he addressed the platform delegates via satellite from Washington.
Dole's attempt to modify a rigid abortion plank was shot down Monday by an unyielding coalition of religious conservatives, anti-abortion activists and supporters of Patrick J. Buchanan, who combined to strip from the platform the Dole proposal for tolerance on the issue of abortion.
As a result, the odds of unifying the party's fractured conservative wing appear to have improved markedly. Buchanan's campaign manager, his sister, Bay Buchanan, spoke positively yesterday about the likelihood that Buchanan will endorse Dole at some point in next week's convention here.
But whether Dole had suffered significant political damage in the process, and how long it will take for the controversy to die down, was not clear.
His retreat on abortion opened him to criticism from party moderates, and especially embittered abortion-rights supporters, who now depict Dole as a would-be president unable to control his own party.
Abortion-rights delegates, and some of their high-profile Republican allies around the country, are still threatening to bring the issue before the full convention on its opening day, next Monday.
Dole aides worked furiously to head off such a fight, urging abortion-rights supporters to back off in the name of unity and searching for last-minute platform language that might satisfy moderates.
"If there is a floor fight, New Jersey will be there," vowed Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, while stopping short of committing herself to such a fight. New York Gov. George E. Pataki made a similar statement.
A floor fight would almost certainly damage Dole, regardless of the outcome, acknowledged Whitman. But she also said, "If we send a message of intolerance, I don't think we're going to put him in a position of winning."
"I don't want to drum the pro-lifers out of the party," said Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld. "I just want there to be room for me and them."
Weld said he was working with Whitman, Gov. Pete Wilson of California and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine on a strategy for a floor fight if the platform writers make no concessions.
"This is not Ralph Reed's, Pat Buchanan's, Phyllis Schlafly's and Gary Bauer's party," said Ann Stone, a prominent Republican abortion-rights activist, referring to the leaders of the anti-abortion forces. "It's up to the delegates to return the party to Bob Dole."
Abortion-rights Republicans are badly outnumbered at the convention. Without an assist from the Dole campaign, they have virtually no chance of reversing this week's platform action.
"The Republicans wanted the public to remember only one thing about this convention, and that's Dole's convention speech. They didn't want people to remember the platform. They didn't want people to remember any of the other speeches," said John J. Pitney, a former Republican Party official who now teaches at Claremont-McKenna College in California.
"All of this was an effort to achieve that end. But because of some tactical mistakes, they're not going to get everything they wanted," he said.
Republican conventions going back to at least 1980 have had anti-abortion majorities, even though the party remains deeply divided over the issue.
The intensity of anti-abortion sentiment at this year's convention appears, to some Republicans at least, to be stronger than ever.
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, claims the anti-abortion coalition has the allegiance of 1,100 of the almost 2,000 convention delegates -- plus an organization on the convention floor that includes more than 100 lieutenants in 25 regional communications centers equipped with laptop computers, cellular telephones and digital pagers.
"We felt we had to build the system so we never had to use it," Reed said yesterday.
Dole aides denied that they caved in to the anti-abortion side and insisted they were confident that they could have won any fight that developed.
"We knew we had to deal with abortion at some point, so we decided to deal with it early on," said Weber. "The main thing was to get it done so we could move on to other issues, such as the economy."
The original Dole strategy, worked out months ago, was to avoid any disagreement over abortion at all. But blunders by candidate Dole forced the campaign to abandon that plan.
Dole, who compiled a consistently anti-abortion voting record in the Senate, initially proposed language in June that acknowledged a diversity of views within the party on abortion and called for tolerance on the issue.
That proposal, worked out with the help of Ralph Reed and other anti-abortion leaders, won the backing of activists and elected officials on both sides of the issue.
The compromise unraveled, however, after Dole started going back and forth over exactly where in the platform document the language should appear.
It caused anti-abortion hard-liners to doubt the intensity of Dole's commitment to their cause.
Pub Date: 8/07/96