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1998 Dawns as Period of Turmoil for GOP

Politics: Selection of a conservative to run against widow for Rep. Capps' seat is a setback for leaders. Party officials, meeting in Indian Wells, face a divisive dispute over abortion resolution.

January 15, 1998|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Republican Party is ushering in the 1998 campaign in turmoil over abortion and other divisive issues, as driven home in California by Tuesday's special congressional election and a meeting of national GOP leaders that begins today in Indian Wells.

Both cases underscore how hard it may be for the GOP establishment to keep potentially damaging rifts in check as the party battles to retain--and even expand--its control of Congress.

Tuesday's special election to replace the late Rep. Walter Capps (D-Santa Barbara) was a setback for GOP leaders who had recruited Brooks Firestone, a moderate Republican state assemblyman, to run for the seat. The election will not be decided until a March 10 runoff because none of the candidates won more than 50% of Tuesday's vote.

Capps' widow, Lois, was the front-runner with 45%. Firestone, with 24.6%, was beaten for the right to face off against her by underdog conservative Tom Bordonaro, who garnered 29.1%.

And the party leadership faces another challenge from its conservative flank as the Republican National Committee gathers in Indian Wells. The main event at the otherwise routine session will be a Friday vote on a resolution--vehemently opposed by GOP leaders--that would cut off party financial support to any candidate who does not back a ban on a controversial form of late-term abortion known as partial-birth abortion.

Gary Bauer, a conservative activist who has broken with GOP leaders to support Bordonaro and the abortion "litmus test," said those were two fronts in a brewing grass-roots rebellion against the Republican establishment in Washington.

"There is a lot of simmering discontent that things aren't moving fast enough," Bauer said. "The trumpet in Washington seems uncertain at times."

These disputes are coming to a boil as Republicans also find themselves unsettled over what their broader legislative strategy should be for the approaching congressional session. Suddenly faced with the prospect of a budget surplus, GOP leaders are split over their policy response. Some have welcomed the surplus as an opportunity for additional tax cuts; others see it as a chance to push for new domestic programs that benefit the middle class.

President Clinton, meanwhile, has unleashed a surprising barrage of domestic initiatives--expanding Medicare, subsidizing child care, new education aid--for which Republicans, scattered across the country for the congressional recess, have lacked a unified response.

Mary Crawford, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, argues that the disagreements within the GOP are a good sign of life in a broad-based party.

"Just because there's a debate doesn't mean that it divides the party," said Crawford. "Vigorous debate, we think, is a healthy thing."

But others worry that the vigorous debate in California's 22nd Congressional District ended up knocking out the candidate who was in the best position to beat Lois Capps in March.

"Bordonaro can't win," said Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP strategist and publisher of a nonpartisan guide to California elections. "This is a district that prefers moderates and the question is whether a candidate who ran to the right of [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich can win 51% of the vote."

Firestone, who supports abortion rights, had been seen as the hand-picked candidate of the Republican establishment because he had been encouraged to run by Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former President Gerald R. Ford. That recruitment effort infuriated Bordonaro, an ardent foe of abortion rights who pledged not to support Gingrich for speaker if he were elected to the House.

"Gingrich's attempt to anoint Brooks Firestone as the next representative from the Central Coast was a disservice to the voters and just plain wrong," Bordonaro said during the campaign.

Throwing fuel on the intraparty fire, Bauer's political action committee--Campaign for Working Families--poured $100,000 into a television blitz highlighting Firestone's opposition to a ban on partial-birth abortions.

Democrats are delighted with the outcome of Tuesday's vote. They, like Hoffenblum, believe Bordonaro will be easier to beat in a district that in the past favored moderate Republicans.

Still, Bordonaro appears to have one advantage--more intensely motivated supporters who are more likely to turn out at the polls.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said Wednesday that the outcome of the March runoff could be a bellwether on this year's elections and whether they will be won on "issues" or "intensity."

The GOP debate on partial-birth abortion is expected to peak Friday in Indian Wells, but for weeks now party leaders have been picking sides in the fight. At issue is a resolution, drafted by Texas national committeeman Tom Lambert, that would deny any party funding to candidates who do not support a ban.

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