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  •   Abortion Key Issue for Calif. GOP Leader

    Sen. Bob Smith, and California Assemblyman George House
    Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), right, meets California Assemblyman George House (R) after speaking at the California GOP convention Sunday. (AP)
    By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, March 1, 1999; Page A3

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., Feb. 28 Conservative Republicans today crushed a bid by moderates to take over leadership of the California GOP, electing a party chairman who believes "killing babies is the issue of the century" and would withhold party money from Republican nominees who do not oppose so-called "partial-birth abortion."

    The vote in favor of Silicon Valley executive John McGraw was a major victory for the religious right and the conservative activists who have dominated the GOP in recent decades, even though party leaders acknowledge that California voters more solidly favor abortion rights than those in other states.

    In a brief victory speech, McGraw declared that he is a man "of strong convictions," but he promised a "tolerant" administration with the "door always open."

    The California Republican Party is "seen as made up of really harsh conservatives, anti-minority, too conservative, pro-life, et cetera, and it just doesn't sell in this state," said GOP pollster Dick Dresner before delegates voted 718 to 457 for McGraw over Nicholas Bavarro, who heads the party in Stanislaus County. "If they continue to get caught up in the abortion issue, it will continue to make the party's role irrelevant."

    For two decades in the 1970s and 1980s, the California Republican Party held sway over state and presidential elections by taking on the issues of affirmative action, immigration and taxes.

    Now the party faces a crisis: The demands of the white majority have largely been met through passage of measures against high taxes, affirmative action and immigration. As the salience of those issues has declined, abortion and gay rights, which the party's conservative wing strongly oppose, have taken center stage. Many voters, however, do not share those views and have cast ballots for Democrats in protest.

    In addition to making right-leaning voters complacent, the success of the conservative initiatives has helped to mobilize such Democratic constituencies as Hispanics and single, working women.

    The widely acknowledged liabilities of the GOP did not prevent verbal skirmishes between conservatives and moderates at the state convention this weekend.

    Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), who is seeking the party's presidential nomination, elicited cheers from the conservative majority but silence from moderates with a ringing endorsement of McGraw.

    "John McGraw was absolutely right," Smith declared. "Killing children is the central issue facing our nation today. If we are not willing to stand up for the rights of unborn children, maybe the Republican Party deserves to fall into the ashcan of history."

    In a reflection of the ideological bent of delegates, Smith and such intensely conservative presidential aspirants as former diplomat Alan Keyes and former Family Research Council head Gary Bauer received overwhelmingly more applause than centrist Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

    California consistently has been on the nation's political cutting edge, and it now leads in the deflation of the conservative agenda. Nationally, the GOP has been weakened by its own success in winning approval of welfare reform and, internationally, pursuing an arms buildup that contributed to the end of the Cold War.

    At the same time, Democrats under President Clinton have moved to the center on a host of issues from crime to federal spending, with dramatic declines in violence and the first federal surplus in nearly 30 years further mooting the central tenets of the conservative Republican agenda.

    "Right now, California Republicans are perceived to be a very nasty, mean-spirited group of angry white men," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a Claremont University political scientist who has studied the GOP extensively. "If they leave here bloody, without moving toward reshaping that image, they are in real danger in the next election."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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