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  •   California's GOP Searching for Unity

    By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, February 28, 1999; Page A4

    SACRAMENTO, Feb. 27 California Republicans, bitter and dispirited as their party's hold on this crucial electoral state has slipped, met here this weekend still consumed by the issues that have divided the GOP through the 1990s.

    The struggle to piece together a semblance of party unity received no help from prospective presidential candidates, as those who came here to pick up backing for the state's early primary immediately began to bicker with each other over both tactics and policy.

    Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) call for a ban on negative campaigns in the presidential nomination contest was met with derision. "What does he think this is, some sort of tea party?" former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander asked.

    Negative campaigning was nothing compared to the issue of abortion, which has loomed over California politics like a thundercloud ready to burst in every election.

    The two likely candidates running at the top of polls Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former Red Cross head Elizabeth Dole declined invitations to the party convention, provoking speculation that they were determined to avoid being sullied by another Republican skirmish over abortion.

    That issue is central to the effort of moderates to regain some leverage in the conservative state GOP structure; whether they succeed will be decided Sunday.

    Abortion has become emblematic of the liabilities that the GOP carries into elections in this state. While conservatives and party leaders remain adamantly opposed to the procedure, they acknowledge that growing numbers of California voters solidly favor abortion rights. "California is pro-choice," said Michael Schroeder, the outgoing party chairman.

    Most of the presidential candidates appearing here this weekend are trying to build a base in the conservative wing of the party, and they were not reluctant to make the case that the GOP must retain its antiabortion plank and not compromise on the issue.

    "The first order of compassion," declared magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, "is protecting the unborn." Taking a tougher line, talk show host and former diplomat Alan Keyes warned: "If you back away from the pro-life plank of the party, if you back away from a party committed to the moral idea, . . . there will be no ground for unity in this party." Both men received enthusiastic applause from conservatives.

    California, which traditionally is of only marginal importance in presidential nomination fights, has taken center stage for 2000. The date of the typically late primary election has been moved forward to March 7, very soon after New Hampshire's primary. The early primary gives the nation's most populous state, which will pick delegates on a winner-take-all basis, huge leverage in picking the GOP nominee. "Whoever carries California, in my view, will be the nominee of the Republican Party without a doubt," McCain said.

    In a dangerous signal to moderates, McCain's message, which mixed a call for much more aggressive appeals to minorities, especially Hispanics, and an end to "corporate welfare," was not what most conventioneers wanted to hear. The initially responsive audience of 1,000 or more activists and party leaders fell noticeably silent for the final two-thirds of his speech after McCain warned against "subsidies to corporations that have become trapped in a form of welfare dependence."

    McCain acknowledged the GOP faces hurdles in attracting key constituencies. "The realities of the last campaign in California indicate that we have a number of challenges, including the Hispanic vote, including women," he said. "I am pro-life, but I would also very much seek a plank in our platform . . . where we emphasized that there is plenty of room in our party for both pro-life and pro-choice Republicans and we welcome all of them."

    While the applause of rank-and-file Republican activists who dominate this convention signaled their support of hard-line stands on social issues, a large number of GOP-elected officials are actively promoting Bush for president, in part because they see him as a centrist with strong appeal.

    Twenty-five members of the legislature sent the Texas governor a plea to enter the contest, and many of the same local officials held a Bush rally at lunchtime, drawing 200 people, although some may have been attracted by the free pizza.

    But party bickering could be seen everywhere. One of the nagging issues here, for example, is a proposed resolution calling on Dan Lungren, the GOP's failed 1998 gubernatorial nominee, to turn over all money remaining in his campaign treasury to the party, which has a $300,000 deficit. The resolution, which would not have been proposed had he won, reflects the widespread view that Lungren ran a poor race.

    "I'm just not going to talk about it," Lungren said, obviously angered by the resolution.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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