WASHINGTON - Weary from two consecutive presidential election defeats, Republicans gather this week in Philadelphia to downplay internal differences on social issues in their resolve to defeat Vice President Gore.
They would just as soon avoid any divisive debates on abortion rights as in 1996. No fiery speeches about cultural wars such as Pat Buchanan delivered in 1992. And no vitriolic attacks upon gay rights and the U.S. Department of Education.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush and vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney will enter a convention that will be a lovefest compared to 1996. Conservatives that year prevailed in their effort to write a platform that demanded abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, curbing illegal immigration, and opposed extending civil rights' laws to gays.
By contrast, Mr. Bush and his allies appeared to have gained their way this year by dropping much of the tough 1996 language and offering a kinder and gentler approach. The platform does not urge the scrapping of any major federal agency and offers soothing language for new immigrants. The only real exception is abortion-rights, where conservatives have deflected efforts by party moderates to drop the party's call for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion rights.
It signals that conservatives and moderates in the Republican Party are ready to bury past differences and avoid the type of rhetoric employed in 1992 by Mr. Buchanan and conservative evangelist Pat Robertson. Mr. Buchanan will be a no-show, having bolted the GOP to run for the Reform Party's presidential nomination.
"There's nothing like a few losses to get you focused on what's important,'' said Victoria Toensing, a deputy attorney general in the Reagan administration. "People are not divided on personalities. Bush and Cheney are really likable people. There has been a concerted effort to make everyone feel included.''
Peter Harris, a Democratic consultant in Washington, said that Republicans are "not going to have any inside-the-family arguments on the floor of the convention hall. They are able to . . . do this because George W. is still leading in the polls, so the moderate progressive Republicans don't have a lot of leverage to win their arguments. They want to win [the election] and argue about it later.''
So instead of bitter intraparty feuds on social issues and angry reminders of last year's effort to impeach President Clinton, Mr. Bush and Republicans will offer a prime-time script that blends the issues they agree upon - using the projected surplus to cut taxes and pay off a large chunk of the national debt; increased spending for national defense, and providing Americans with federal vouchers to pay for private schools.
James Ruvolo, former vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Republicans "want as much of their message out as they can, but they don't want news. The truth is we're not in the entertainment business; we're in the election business. We want to win elections, not entertain reporters.''
A fight of sorts still could develop on abortion rights. A number of leading Republicans, ranging from Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and New York Gov. George Pataki, favor abortion rights, and they have made clear their unhappiness at the abortion plank.
Actress Dina Merrill, who has lobbied Republican governors to drop the abortion plank, has offered a substitute a paragraph declaring: "We recognize and respect the differing views within our own party on the deeply personal issue of abortion. We welcome people on all sides of this complex issue and encourage their active participation as we work together on those issues we agree upon.''
Ms. Merrill said that the abortion issue cost Republicans the 1992 and 1996 elections. "We're not trying to get [Mr. Bush] in trouble,'' Ms. Merrill said. "We're trying to help them because I think they will be in trouble with independents if they don't do this. We're real Republicans. We want this guy to get elected. But we don't want to be excluded.''
Republicans have usually been quicker to hide their differences than Democrats. Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and George Bush in 1988 all emerged from united conventions to sweep to victory in November.
But the chronic tension on social issues and civil rights at times between party conservatives and moderates has erupted in full view on national television. In 1964, conservative icon Barry Goldwater wrested the nomination from New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who headed the party's old liberal wing. During his acceptance speech, Senator Goldwater aimed his fire toward Governor Rockefeller by declaring that "those who don't care for our cause we don't expect to enter our ranks in any case.''
In 1992, conservatives and moderates engaged in a furious struggle when Mr. Buchanan challenged President Bush for the nomination. Mr. Buchanan did not win a primary, but he inflicted serious damage upon Mr. Bush. To gain back the conservatives, Mr. Bush's aides awarded Mr. Buchanan with a prime-time speech on the first evening of the Republican convention in Houston.
In a fiery sermon that electrified conservatives in the audience, Mr. Buchanan assailed then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, charging his election would lead to "abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units.''
The speech horrified many Americans who believed it was far too harsh. Mr. Bush continued to slip in the polls and finished with just 38 per cent of the vote in a three-way race with Mr. Clinton and Texas billionaire Ross Perot.
"Everyone learned from the Republican convention where Buchanan and Robertson scared America,'' Mr. Ruvolo said. "They're not going to let that happen again, and we're not going to let that happen at ours.''