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GOP CONVENTION '96

Despite Truce, Deep Divisions Remain in Massachusetts GOP

Politics: Abortion disputes, squabbles between moderates and conservatives in that state could hurt party chances in its battle for control of Congress.

August 16, 1996|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Republicans may have called a cease-fire in the ideological warfare over abortion and other social issues at this week's national convention, but some Republicans like Laurie Letourneau are wondering how long the truce will last now that the delegates are going home.

Letourneau, a convention delegate from Massachusetts, says that disputes over abortion and squabbles between moderates and conservatives in her state have been so bitter that she is thinking of leaving the Republican Party. "Passionately" opposed to abortion, Letourneau says: "I feel like I don't belong in the Republican Party in Massachusetts."

In few states were the ideological divisions within the GOP as deep as in the Massachusetts delegation to the convention. And although departing delegates say that the split may not affect the presidential race in a state where President Clinton has an overwhelming lead, it could have a profound impact in coming months on the battle for control of Congress in a state where several House seats and a Senate race are up for grabs.

GOP leaders have worked hard to heal the scars of battles between moderates and conservatives during convention week, using the salve of a popular vice presidential pick, emotional speeches and festive balloon drops.

"The hatchet is buried. Now we move forward to beat Clinton," said Robert Semonian, a Massachusetts delegate who had been state campaign chairman for Dole's chief GOP rival, Patrick J. Buchanan. "We're a team."

But there are some very sharp hatchets to bury in Massachusetts, where the run-up to the convention laid bare deep divisions that may continue to bedevil the party.

While many state delegations are either overwhelmingly conservative or clearly dominated by moderates, Massachusetts' delegation is very closely divided. That magnifies, in the confines of one 37-member group, the ideological fault lines within the party as a whole that convention organizers have managed to bridge--or at least paper over--this week in San Diego.

The divisions between moderates and conservative Republicans have been in evidence in several recent GOP primaries for the Senate--in Kansas, Georgia and Michigan, for example--where antiabortion candidates won Republican nominations after bitter intraparty fights with abortion-rights advocates.

"We're seeing it in races all over the country," said Steve Jarding, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "The Republican Party seems to have a tough time dealing with it."

The ideological split is surprising in a state generally considered a bastion of liberalism, whose delegation was led by one of the GOP's most prominent moderates, Gov. William F. Weld. It was Weld who helped lead the failed effort to drop the party's antiabortion plank.

But abortion-rights proponents have only a narrow majority in the delegation, which has many former Buchanan supporters, Christian Coalition allies and other conservatives.

The split delegation is the product of a bitterly contested delegate-selection process earlier this year in which conservative activists out-organized the party's moderate wing. Party caucuses around the state gave a majority of the 30 elected seats to antiabortion delegates. Weld created a huge stir when he challenged the right of some delegates to attend, questioning their commitment to supporting Dole as is required by the state's winner-take-all caucus rules.

Weld eventually backed down from the challenge but was spared the embarrassment of leading an antiabortion majority to the convention when the state party leaders chose seven abortion-rights advocates as at-large delegates.

Even so, it is not clear that Weld would have had the support of his delegation if he had picked a fight over abortion on the convention floor against Dole's wishes. "There was not the support at the convention for a floor fight," said Jim Rappaport, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party.

"There are a lot of pro-choice Republicans who thought this was Bob Dole's convention."

Some see the squabbling as a political plus for the Massachusetts GOP.

"It demonstrates you can be a successful party even while you have people with strong differences of opinion," said Rep. Peter G. Torkildsen (R-Mass.), a moderate who faces a tough race for reelection.

The intraparty battle surely will figure in Weld's neck-and-neck contest for the Senate against incumbent Democrat John Kerry--but there is some disagreement over whether it will help or hurt him.

Most argue that Weld's prominent fight against antiabortion forces and the GOP establishment will strengthen his position among swing voters in a heavily Democratic state and help him keep his distance from controversial GOP leaders such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

"Kerry's central theme of the campaign has been that Weld is a puppet of Newt Gingrich," said Virginia Buckingham, Weld's campaign manager. "It's going to be hard for him to connect those two."

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