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  • Background on the 1998 and 2000 campaigns

  •   GOP's Ties to Christian Right Fraying

    By Thomas B. Edsall and Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, March 27, 1998; Page A01

    On three fronts, the fragile alliance between the Christian right and the establishment wings of the Republican Party threatens to deteriorate into bitter disputes endangering the party's Election Day prospects in 1998 and 2000.

    The coalition that put the GOP in the White House in all three presidential elections in the 1980s and won the House and Senate in 1994 is under severe strain as more strident leaders are defining social conservatism, and Republican regulars worry that controversial policies may threaten the apparent security of incumbent officeholders.

    For almost two decades, social conservatives have complained that the Republican Party establishment has repeatedly betrayed them by neglecting the issues that matter most to the right: abortion, school prayer and homosexuality. During campaigns, party leaders promise to support a conservative social-issues agenda, only to abandon it after Election Day in favor of tax, budget, and regulatory legislation.

    Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, said the Republican Party leadership "keeps treating the cultural conservatives as people who belong in the back of the bus, and it has caused great resentment."

    On one front of the current internal GOP battle, James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, is threatening to bolt the party altogether and "do everything in my power to tell evangelical and pro-life Christians" of the "moral and philosophical collapse of the Republican leadership" unless he receives credible reassurances.

    On another, Weyrich organized a meeting of 15 leaders of social conservative organizations to develop procedures to endorse a single presidential candidate in the Republican primaries. The goal is to avoid a repeat of 1996, when Robert J. Dole failed to mobilize social conservatives.

    Moreover, an explicit "conservative" endorsement would sharpen public attention on such issues as abortion, gay rights and gambling and would force the kind of debate conservative leaders would welcome.

    At their meeting these 15 conservative leaders, including representatives of Concerned Women for America, the Christian Coalition, the Traditional Values Coalition, the Eagle Forum and Focus on the Family, discussed the possibility that they might abandon the Republican Party altogether if the presidential nominee picked in 2000 did not meet their basic requirements.

    California Gov. Pete Wilson was generally viewed as unacceptable by this group, and there were some present who described Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the same category as Wilson, according to sources who attended. Andrea Sheldon, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, said the danger of a George W. Bush presidency is that "like father like son." President Bush "gave us [Supreme Court] Justice [David] Souter. Souter turned out to be a real disaster," she said.

    The two candidates who appeared to have the strongest support in this group, according to the sources, were Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) and magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, both of whom have been making a concerted effort to appeal to the religious right.

    Weyrich said that with some exceptions, most prospective presidential candidates hold the "right" stands. "The question for us isn't their stand," he said, "but how great is their level of commitment."

    Party leaders, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.), were dismissed for failing to challenge President Clinton's policies. "What we see is Clinton, Gingrich and Lott appear to be together on most issues," said Phyllis Schlafly, head of the Eagle Forum. She described the conservative gathering as "grass roots versus establishment."

    The third front is the ongoing dispute within the party over conflicting explanations of the loss of Tom Bordonaro, the Republican candidate in a special election for a California House seat this month.

    Some party moderates and centrists, citing a post-election poll by the National Republican Congressional Committee, contend that the huge volume of independent advertising – most especially the television ads financed by conservative leader Gary Bauer's political action committee – foisted an "extremist" image on Bordonaro.

    Bauer, president of the Family Research Council and a Dobson ally, sharply disputes this interpretation, contending it is sour grapes from party moderates and leaders angered over Bordonaro's defeat in the primary of the abortion-rights candidate recruited by Gingrich and NRCC chairman John Linder (R-Ga.).

    Instead, Bauer argued that the Bordonaro race is a case study of the failure of prominent Republican leaders to remain loyal when their party's nominees are strong conservatives. Bauer cited former president Gerald R. Ford's description of Bordonaro as an "extreme right-wing" candidate, and Dole's description of Illinois Senate GOP nominee Peter Fitzpatrick as "a fringe conservative," "hard right" and "inflexible."

    While seemingly arcane to outsiders, these disputes have blown up into full-scale rhetorical battles that encompass not only major leaders of the Christian right, but top Republican congressional leaders. In presidential elections, Republicans have been most successful when friction between factions has been kept to a minimum.

    Dobson, whose organization is based in Colorado Springs, visited Washington last week, fully prepared to publicly denounce the GOP for failing to promote an assault on abortion, elimination of the income tax marriage penalty, the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts, passage of a religious liberty constitutional amendment and recision of the "don't ask-don't tell" policy on gays in the military.

    But Dobson was persuaded to back off by 25 conservative House members who said that such an attack would undermine their credibility with voters as committed proponents of conservative initiatives.

    The next day, however, Dobson's fury was revived in full force during a meeting with House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). Dobson left the meeting "even more determined to confront the party."

    As he explained in a letter to the 25 House members, DeLay "was argumentative, defensive and accusatory. Instead of grappling with Republican failures . . . he denied that a paralysis has occurred and trumpeted meager accomplishments. Then he attacked Gary Bauer [who was at the meeting] for causing the loss of a seat in the Bordonaro race. It is also my understanding that after we left, DeLay was highly critical of us and said, 'They just don't get it.'"

    DeLay issued a carefully worded response: "We had a frank and open discussion regarding the congressional agenda and the moral crisis that grips our nation. I have the highest regard for Dr. Dobson and his organization."

    A source close to DeLay said the majority whip "let them have it," during the meeting, telling Dobson and Bauer "we are doing the best we can, but we don't have a conservative majority in the House." DeLay told Bauer that running antiabortion ads was a strategic error in the Santa Barbara district where 58 percent of the voters support abortion rights. "Thanks, but no thanks, if you guys are going to do things that are counterproductive," DeLay said, according to the source.

    The disputes are becoming worrisome among rank-and-file Republicans. "Their [Christian conservatives'] concerns and problems need to be taken very seriously and attended to with an open mind and open ears. . . . But there has to be a realization on their part that splitting from Republicans is basically the equivalent of political cannibalism. The result will be no winners at all," said Rep. Charles F. Bass (R-N.H.). "These individuals are very passionate believers, but they are not people who are elected and have to stand before the electorate."

    Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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