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Party practices balancing act

Published Aug. 28, 2005

U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney of Oviedo, like many conservatives here, has a lot to be thankful for. The president remains committed to banning gay marriage. The Republican Party platform on Monday approved calls for bans on abortion and limiting stem cell research.

But among prime-time speakers at the Republican National Convention this week, he sees few who hold those views.

"We welcome people of all different philosophies," Feeney said of the high-profile, moderate Republican speakers such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an abortion rights supporter who spoke Monday night.

"But absolutely there is a concern that we make sure traditional Reagan Republicans understand that the Republican Party is not deserting its emphasis on the sanctity of life, and social conservatism like the sanctity of marriage."

Across town, at a reception for moderate Republicans, a leader of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group, fumed about the "radical right" hijacking his party.

"This is a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," said Chris Batton, political director of the organization.

Here's a switch: The chronically fractious Democrats held a convention last month with barely a hint of disagreement. But among the normally disciplined Republicans gathering this week, there is open grumbling from both the left and right of the party.

While polls show a Republican base unified behind the president, the complaints illustrate the fine line President Bush must walk in the final weeks of the campaign. He must appeal to the remaining sliver of undecided voters and at the same time energize his most conservative supporters. An estimated 4-million evangelical Christians didn't vote in 2000, and the White House is targeting them this time.

The balancing act in New York is playing out in Republican primaries around the country. In Florida's Republican Senate primary, the White House is tacitly backing former Housing Secretary Mel Martinez, who has downplayed his moderate image while running against former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, a social conservative.

"This is the conundrum we find ourselves in in Florida _ having to appeal to the far right and then come back to the moderate middle for the general election," said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a Martinez supporter and moderate Republican from West Palm Beach.

Social conservatives aren't happy about that moderate middle part. They complain the convention is pandering to centrists, with a roster salted with moderate speakers like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Gov. George Pataki and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who support abortion rights.

Monday's speakers included U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who opposes Bush's proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Tonight, Education Secretary Rod Paige will hail the success of Bush's signature education policy, the No Child Left Behind Act, which some conservatives see as unwelcome federal control of local schools.

For all the planned speeches on compassion and strength leading to the president's address Thursday night, conservatives complain they will hear almost nothing about cracking down on illegal immigration, cutting federal spending and thwarting gay marriage.

GOP organizers recently added several antiabortion and anti-gay rights advocates, including U.S. Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., after Christian family groups with strong ties to the White House complained.

But because they won't speak during prime viewing hours, they will be invisible to most Americans.

"The voters in Nebraska and Kansas and Florida, they need to connect," said Lori Waters, executive director of the Eagle Forum, a conservative group originally founded by Phyllis Schlafly to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. "I hope they'll get to watch more than the governors of a couple liberal states. If the party moves to the left . . . and just assumes they have the base, that's a dangerous assumption."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said conservatives would have liked to see James Dobson of Focus on the Family or Alan Keyes, a conservative Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. Conservative Republicans in the U.S. House recently circulated a letter seeking a speaking slot for Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., one of the Capitol's most outspoken opponents of abortion. It was ignored.

"There's many faces to this party, and several of those faces are missing," Perkins said.

Meanwhile, some party moderates complained the Republican platform is overly conservative, with too much focus on divisive social issues. Moderates tried to include a statement recognizing the disagreement over abortion and gay marriage, but conservatives defeated it. Instead, the party added a broader statement welcoming "into our ranks all who may hold differing positions."

Outside Madison Square Garden Monday, a dozen antiabortion protesters maligned Giuliani and waved signs like "Principle before Party." The list of convention speakers "shows that there is a chink in our armor and we cannot take our pro-life platform for granted," organizer Chris Slatterly said. "We are not happy."

Across the street, moderate Republicans gathered in a theater for a forum on the importance of centrists in the party. Former Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Christine Todd Whitman, an abortion rights supporter who's writing a book titled It's My Party, Too, scoffed at the notion that the GOP is ignoring conservatives.

"There are two other speakers that represent a lot of their conservative philosophy," she said, "and they're called the vice president and president."