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Dole Is Warned of Abortion Fight

GOP: Moderates raise specter of convention battle if platform language isn't softened. But presidential hopeful calls new 'party of the open door' statement a victory.

August 07, 1996|ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Gov. Pete Wilson and other leaders of the Republican Party's moderate wing appealed Tuesday to Bob Dole to find a way to soften the party position on abortion and warned of a potentially divisive floor fight at next week's nominating convention if he fails to do so.

Wilson flew here for a press conference in which he declared that "nobody who is pro-choice is urging that we have a floor fight. To the contrary they are against a floor fight."

"But unhappily that may be the only option."

On the other side of the party's deep divide over abortion, there was little indication of a desire to soften a victory won Monday, when platform writers discarded a "tolerance clause" on abortion that Dole had asked for.

In voting Tuesday night, the party's platform committee repeatedly turned down proposals to alter the current antiabortion language, rejecting several amendments, including one offered on Wilson's behalf by California delegate Sheila Carroll. After several overwhelming votes, the committee voted to close debate on that section of the platform, meaning that under party rules no further changes would be possible except on the floor of the national convention next week.

Republican officials continued to hold out the possibility of finding some sort of compromise that would head off a floor fight.

But far from pressuring the party's conservative wing to change its stance, Dole released a statement Tuesday night declaring that the platform panel's action on Monday, tossing out language that he had personally asked for, was actually a victory for him. And in votes Tuesday evening, the platform committee overwhelmingly voted down proposals to change the antiabortion language, including one offered on Wilson's behalf by California delegate Sheila Carroll.

As a result, as party officials gathered in a series of closed-door meetings seeking a compromise that would allow a way out of an increasingly difficult political position, a full-fledged abortion fight on the convention's opening day Monday seemed increasingly possible.

A fight on the convention floor over abortion would be the first such battle at a Republican convention since 1964, when party factions supporting Barry Goldwater and Nelson A. Rockefeller clashed bitterly over a series of ideologically charged issues.

Every Republican presidential nominee since then has been keenly aware that the battle that summer in San Francisco was widely blamed for contributing to Goldwater's landslide defeat by Lyndon B. Johnson.

As a result, party leaders have taken great pains ever since to avoid such debates. For example, in the last hotly contested convention, in 1976, then-President Ford was willing to allow conservatives led by Ronald Reagan to virtually write the entire foreign policy portion of his platform to avoid a public fight with them.

Dole, however, is in a position that in some ways is more difficult than Ford's, political analysts said. For while Ford faced opposition only from his right, Dole is caught in a cross-fire. At this point, the outcome may depend less on any action by him than on whether Wilson and his fellow party moderates are actually willing to follow through on their threats.

To take their fight to the convention floor, Wilson and his allies would need the support either of 27 members of the 107-member platform committee or a majority of six state delegations, which Wilson says he believes they could obtain.

In addition to Wilson, the governors of New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts have publicly condemned the current platform. Several other state delegations also appear to have a majority supporting abortion rights, although those delegates might not be willing to go through with a floor debate that would certainly harm Dole's hopes of having a convention next week that would portray an image of unity.

Earlier this summer, in a move to placate party moderates, Dole had insisted on language in the party platform that would call for "tolerance" of diverse views on difficult questions and that would specifically name abortion as one of those issues.

Monday, the platform panel tossed out that language, replacing it with a generic statement that made no mention of abortion but declared that Republicans "are the party of the open door."

"While our party remains steadfast in its commitment to advancing its historic principles and ideals, we also recognize that members of our party have deeply held and sometimes differing views," the new statement reads.

In a statement released by his press secretary, Nelson Warfield, Dole proclaimed that a victory. "As the party's nominee, in Bob Dole's view this means you can be pro-life or pro-choice and still be a good Republican. That was the point of Bob Dole's push for tolerance in the platform in the first place.

"As much as our opponents want to distort our commitment to protecting the unborn, all this adds up to a victory for tolerance and a plus for Bob Dole in November," Warfield said.

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