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STYLE & CULTURE

A GOP struggle for the podium

Conservative Christians feel slighted by party's moderate picks for prime convention slots.

August 18, 2004|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

With days to go before the Republican National Convention, the culture wars are heating up again. This time they're starting at home, as the Republican Party's election-year overtures to moderates clash with its affirmations to conservative Christian voters.

Many socially conservative leaders feel slighted, saying their representatives have been edged out of prime-time convention speaking slots by more moderate Republicans, such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani -- who favor legal abortion -- and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposes a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.

Their push for a bigger piece of the action has generated a small movement.

Indiana Rep. Mike Pence got 127 Republicans in Congress to sign a letter calling for a central speaking role for Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who is anti-abortion, saying his appearance would electrify the delegates like "Elvis at Memphis."

Ralph Reed, chairman of the Bush campaign for the southeast region, said religious leaders are being invited to attend the convention and "we're continuing to talk to people about being part of the program." Last Thursday, Michael Reagan, the son of President Reagan who is a conservative radio host popular with evangelical Christians, was added to the list of speakers. "He's very well-regarded," Reed said. "He has a big audience out there."

Reagan said he would use his five-minute speech to introduce a tribute to his father. "This has nothing to do with moderates versus conservatives in the party," he said. "The party was not coming to me to say that this is for all the conservatives upset because they don't have enough speakers at the convention. My dad was elected president of the United States because a lot more people than conservatives voted for him."

Reagan said he would not use the podium to delve into contentious issues, such as government backing for stem cell research, which the Bush administration supports in a limited form. (His brother, Ron Reagan, raised Republican hackles when he called for greater government support for the research in a speech at the Democratic National Convention.)

"I didn't want to do a political speech," Michael Reagan said. "This has everything to do with honoring Ronald Reagan."

Even admirers of the Reagan legacy would like to see more prime-time conservatism.

Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said she thought her party was engaged in a misguided attempt to spotlight moderate "political celebrities" who play well to a liberal media. Janice Crouse, a leader of Concerned Women for America, said President Bush should worry more about evangelical Christian voters, or he will jeopardize their support in tight races in the crucial swing states. "The gays and pro-abortion people are saying you've got to add a plank," Crouse said. "If the president adds that plank, they will nail him to it." Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson is talking about not going to New York at all.

"Apparently political stars get rewarded with a prime-time convention spot if they disagree with President Bush's position" on a constitutional gay marriage ban, "as well as ... President Bush's position on the right to life," conservative columnist Paul Weyrich said. "They can also disagree with the president's position on capital punishment, guns and a host of other issues."

"As an Orthodox Christian, I am outraged that men like this would be highlighted," Weyrich said. "If the president is embarrassed to be seen with conservatives at the convention, maybe conservatives will be embarrassed to be seen with the president on election day."

Reed says there's room for everybody in New York. "We are a broad and diverse party with leaders that appeal to a broad spectrum of voters," Reed said. "That will be reflected from the podium. But social conservatives and conservatives in general will be well represented."

What those conservatives say will be of great interest to Christopher Barron, the political director of the gay and lesbian Log Cabin Republicans, who feel betrayed by White House support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Depending on what happens at the convention, they say they may not repeat their 2000 endorsement of Bush.

"We're going to be there. We're going to watch and listen," Barron said. "Gays and lesbians made it clear that this was a line in the sand that could not be crossed. And the president's support for this discriminatory amendment has jeopardized the endorsement of our organization, and the support of a million gay and lesbian voters and their friends and families. The organization is considering not endorsing the president."

Former Reagan White House advisor Gary Bauer said the overwhelming passage of a gay marriage ban in Missouri ought to convince Bush that he shouldn't care.

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