The Fight Inside The Tent

NASSAU COUNTY, ON NEW York's Long Island, seemed a perfect place for Sen. Bob Dole to fire up a big crowd. It's the old suburban sod of Sen. Al D'Amato, Dole's boon companion. More important, it's a well-kept bastion of cultur-al conservatism: an antitax, antiwelfare, heavily Roman Catholic haven for families who long ago fled New York City. And Al D'Amato not only knows how to build a party, he knows how to throw one.

So in a hangarlike gym at Hofstra University, D'Amato's machine turned out more than 3,000 of his Republican faithful last week to pay homage to the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee. They consumed mounds of shrimp, slabs of roast beef and drinks from the open bars as they listened to Dole -- trailing President Clinton by huge margins -- work his way through a caustic new stump speech. Clinton, Dole thundered, was weak and waffling, a man who's "talked conservatively while walking knee-deep in the swamps of liberalism." Dole vowed to "restore an instinct for decency" to America. One important way to do that, he declared, was to ban "partial-birth" abortions. As president, Dole promised, he'd sign a bill to do so.

He got applause for the line, but it was underwhelming. The audience was too ambivalent to cheer as one. Beneath the surface, even on conservative Long Island, a vicious internecine war is erupting among Republicans over the most durable and deeply symbolic moral issue in American life: abortion. There were clerical collars and plenty of devout pro-lifers at Hofstra. But there were just as many reliably Republican voters who are avowedly pro-choice. "On abortion, it's about 50-50 here," said Grant Lally, the GOP's congressional candidate this year for the island's North Shore. "It's divided down the middle."

As Nassau goes, so goes the GOP. Dole is in the midst of a cultural cross-fire that could end in a floor fight at the GOP convention and produce legions of alienated voters on both sides of the abortion issue. A parade of governors -- Volvo Republicans Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, D'Amato ally George Pataki of New York and Pete Wilson of California -- are calling on the party to completely drop its "pro-life" plank. Whitman argues that removing the language is necessary to help close the gender gap, which these days gives Democrats a 10-point head start among women.

On the other side stands a coalition led by the Buchanan family -- candidate Pat and sister Bay. They vowed last week to create havoc at the convention in San Diego this August if a single word of plank is altered. "If they try to change it, they'll regret it," Bay Buchanan warned. Her brother's campaign sputtered long ago, but remains capable of rallying what is likely to be a strong pro-life force in San Diego. And she was joined, significantly, by Dr. James Dobson of the Focus on the Family -- a major evangelical leader who rarely appears at Washington press conferences. Dole, Dobson declared darkly, would commit "political suicide" if he allows the plank to change.

Why abortion, and why now? The surprising answer is this: the Dole campaign, working closely with Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition, wants it that way. His top aides are pursuing a careful -- and probably overly optimistic -- plan to manage a seemingly unmanageable issue. Part of the strategy is to flush out all sides now so that the Dole forces will have a chance to contain the battle in San Diego. "We were going to have to face this debate anyway," Dole campaign manager Scott Reed told NEWSWEEK. "So why not have it now?"

The Dole campaign's starting assumption is that its candidate needs room to maneuver on abortion. It's a "cutting" issue with only a small minority of GOP voters, but it's pivotal nevertheless. The trick is to somehow satisfy both factions in the late Lee Atwater's "Big Tent." A special compilation of exit polls from the GOP primaries, NEWSWEEK has learned, shows the wide chasms Dole must bridge. In New England and New York, GOP voters overwhelmingly oppose a plank that bans abortion. In crucial swing states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, sentiment is sharply divided. And in Southern states such as Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi, GOP voters strongly favor keeping the plank.

To achieve peace within the party -- and to give Dole maximum dealmaking leverage -- the campaign needs not one but two prizes to bestow: the selection of a running mate and the platform. The Dole camp is giving itself running room in a carefully choreographed series of moves. First, the campaign put out the word that Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois would chair the platform committee. The snowy-haired Hyde is a respected champion of the pro-life cause, but he's also known as a political realist willing to cut a deal. Then Whitman, a pro-choice crusader, was named a convention cochair. Then Pataki, a D'Amato ally who makes few moves without consulting his mentor, joined Whitman in calling for the plank's removal. Wilson, a national chair of Dole's campaign, followed suit.

NOW, DOLE'S HANDLERS believe, they are in position to manage change in the plank without terminally offending either faction. That way Dole -- the lifelong dealmaker -- can go either way in choosing a running mate, mixing pro-life and pro-choice messages. He would have room in the tent, in other words, for a pro-choice Colin Powell -- just to pick a name at random.

Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition is key to the Dole strategy. The group's executive director, Ralph Reed, was conspicuously absent when the Buchanans issued their call to arms. And in fact, the "Reed Brothers" -- Scott and Ralph, no relation but allies -- have been working together for years. Both got experience in presidential politics with Jack Kemp in 1988, a campaign that stressed economic, not cultural, conservatism. The Christian Coalition's hierarchy quietly supported Dole during the primaries. Both Reeds are pro-life, but believe the GOP can't be in thrall to militant anti-abortion activists like Buchanan. Ralph Reed says that Robertson -- whom Dole has carefully cultivated in recent years -- agrees with that view.

It's no accident that Ralph Reed's new book, "Active Faith" (exclusive excerpts, page 28), floats the idea of rewording the plank. His suggestion that the platform delete specific mention of a "Human Life Amendment" to the U.S. Constitution is already roiling the waters of the Buchananite right. "He's raised the white flag of surrender," said Bay. Reed recounts a sometimes-testy dinner conversation he had in 1993 with Pat and Bay. Reed says he told them that the 1996 nomination was "Dole's to lose" and a campaign based solely on appealing to social conservatives could not win. He describes Pat Buchanan as "both intrigued and disappointed." "You just keep working on those school board races," he quotes Pat as joking, "and leave the presidency to me." The Buchanans don't dispute the account.

At this point, the risk for Dole is that the Reed Brothers are being too smart by half. In hopes of avoiding another Houston, they may ensure one. Only the strongest partisans care about a platform plank, but they pay obsessive attention to every utterance on the issue. Nor is the Dole campaign such a tightly run ship that it speaks with one voice -- on abortion or anything else. "There's too much freelancing right now," said one top Dole adviser.

The Dole camp thinks it can actually use the abortion issue to its advantage by championing the ban on partial-birth procedures. Clinton operatives insist that his veto last month won't hurt the president with Catholic voters, who are far too diverse and multidimensional to oppose him on this matter alone. Dole insiders disagree. "Clinton's veto was the political event of April," said Scott Reed. "It's a 91 percent winning issue for us, and it's going to help us enormously in some key states." Dole will use his role as Senate majority leader to press for a veto-override vote later this year -- closer to Election Day.

But the atmosphere may be getting too emotional to control. The Clinton veto brought swift and startlingly blunt condemnations from the American Catholic hierarchy and even the Vatican. And the Rev. Billy Graham is taking a rare stand on a political issue. He disclosed to conservative columnist Cal Thomas that he had complained to Clinton about the veto during a White House meeting. "With all that going on, how could we back down on the platform?" said a top Buchanan aide.

In the end, some Dole advisers argue, he should cut the gamesmanship short and accept the plank as is. The more Dole tries to finesse the issue, the more suspicious pro-lifers become -- and they've never regarded him as a hero anyway. If Dole is going to keep the current language and rely on Whitman, Pataki and Wilson to keep their followers in the tent, the argument goes, better to say so now. If he waits, he'll look as if he's caving to Buchanan. "The smart thing to do is to cut this off -- now," said one top insider -- no fan of the Reed Brothers.

To students of Dole's life, there's a historical irony in all this. In 1974, in the aftermath of Watergate and a year after the Roe v. Wade decision, Dole won his first -- and closest -- Senate re-election campaign by joining forces with the then new Right to Life crusade. Now Dole's career is on the line again. Abortion is still an issue. And he has to decide how close he wants to be to a movement that once saved him.