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GOP Keeps Peace With Platform That Supports Bush

Concessions Are Made on Abortion, Gay Marriage

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2004; Page A08

NEW YORK, Aug. 26 -- Staunch conservatives fumed about stem cell research, and some moderates fussed about abortion, but Republican Party platform writers easily squelched all serious dissent here Thursday and approved a 100-page document that supports President Bush's reelection campaign in virtually every respect.

Just as their Democratic counterparts did in 1992, after 12 years of Republican presidencies, GOP activists on the party's left and right bit their tongues and endured a few disappointments in the name of fending off Democrat John F. Kerry. The 110 platform delegates defeated conservatives' efforts to go beyond Bush's position on restricting immigration and stem cell research, and they rejected bids from the left to soften the party's stands against abortion and same-sex marriage.

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The result is a document that lauds Bush on nearly every page and -- even if it is rather bland, as some delegates privately grumbled -- gives no outward sign of party divisions. Republican delegates are scheduled to adopt the platform when they open their four-day nominating convention here Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), who chaired the platform committee, told reporters Thursday, "One of my goals was for there not to be too much light between the president's policy" and the platform. He succeeded so well that when asked to name a single line at variance with a Bush campaign position, he could not cite one.

The two-day platform session avoided the types of flare-ups that animated past meetings. Four years ago, Bush allies had to scramble overnight to beat back conservatives' call to abolish the Education Department. In 1996, two moderate GOP governors -- Pete Wilson of California and William F. Weld of Massachusetts -- lost their prime-time convention speaking slots after pressing colleagues to soften the plank that since 1976 has called for a constitutional ban on abortion.

Haley Barbour chaired the Republican National Committee during the 1996 dustup. This week, as governor of Mississippi, he chaired the platform subcommittee that dealt with abortion and marriage issues, and dissent was so muted that his panel finished its work ahead of the four others. Delegates reaffirmed the antiabortion plank with barely a word of debate, and they added two paragraphs to the marriage section that primarily amplified the original draft's criticism of judges who would consider overturning state laws barring same-sex marriage.

In an interview after the platform was finished, Barbour said Republicans have largely ended their abortion battles because they realize GOP candidates on both sides of the issue have succeeded for years. "There's no energy in having a fight over abortion in our party," he said.

This week's closest brush with controversy came Wednesday night, when a few conservative delegates proposed going beyond Bush's call for limits on stem cell research, which scientists hope will lead to breakthroughs in treating various diseases. The president has limited federal funding to an existing number of cell lines derived from five-day-old human embryos. Kerry is among those calling for fewer restrictions, which could allow cloning embryos solely for research.

Late Wednesday, some delegates offered a plank advocating an end to all research using embryonic stem cells. Frist, a heart surgeon, spoke against the proposal, and delegates voted to reject it.

On Thursday, a conservative bid for tougher immigration restrictions died even more quickly. Despite Bush's call for a guest worker program to accommodate illegal immigrants, Michigan delegate Glenn Clark offered language urging "the use of all necessary funds and force to prevent illegal entry into the United States." Frist promptly called on Barbour and two other platform committee officials to speak against the amendment, which failed overwhelmingly on a voice vote.

By day's end, conservative and moderate activists watching the proceedings appeared content to emphasize their victories and accept their setbacks quietly.

"We're reasonably happy," said longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who sat in the guest section's front row. The abortion issue, she noted, "caused big fights" at the previous three Republican conventions, "and it's completely noncontroversial now. There wasn't even a motion to alter it in any way."

Republicans who favor abortion rights, of course, were less content. Ann E.W. Stone, national chairman of Republicans for Choice, marveled that the platform committee rejected a "unity plank" that would have said the party recognizes that some Republicans will disagree with the planks on abortion, gay rights, contraception and other matters.

"The crumbs we got at the table," she said, were in a compromise paragraph, adopted after lengthy debate, saying Republicans "respect and accept" that people can hold different views, without mentioning any topics. The long discussion on whether to replace "recognize" with "respect and accept," Stone said in an interview, "was nuts."

Nutty or not, platform committee leaders were unabashedly pleased by the overall harmony. "So much was projected that this platform committee would have tough divisions, that there would be dissent, that in fact there would be some serious challenges," said Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a committee co-chairman. "We debated, we occasionally argued, but we ended in a way that led to a very united platform and a very united party."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company