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GOP rallies around goal: Just win

By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 4, 2000


PHILADELPHIA -- If Warren Norred, a social conservative, is angry that his issues -- abortion, school prayer and tax cuts -- were ignored at the Republican National Convention, he is keeping it to himself.

Dressed in a wide-brimmed white cowboy hat that identifies him as a delegate from Texas, Norred, 36, insists he is downright happy that the convention did not revolve around hard-core conservative issues.

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After a quarter-century of holding the Republican Party hostage to their always escalating demands to move toward the right, Norred says, the social conservatives are finally willing to back off a little -- not because they are any less committed to their views, but because they want a Republican in the White House.

"We want desperately to win," says Norred, who is an engineer in Arlington, Texas. "That's the only way we are going to take back the Supreme Court. For us, it's all about the court."

So it was the anticipated taste of victory, more than anything else, that drove a fractured Republican Party together during the past week and produced one of the most harmonious political conventions in modern American history. That taste clearly filled the senses of everyone in the convention hall Thursday night as they cheered long and hard for their new standard-bearer, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Yet it would be too simple to suggest that Republicans buried their differences in Philadelphia simply because they are hungry for victory. The harmony that was evident here is also the result of many gradual changes within the party in recent years: the maturing of the conservative movement, the ascendancy of pragmatic GOP governors over the ideological leaders in Congress, the changing ethnic and racial makeup of the nation and the departure of one of the party's most divisive forces, Pat Buchanan.

Nowhere was the maturation of the social conservative movement more apparent than in the attitude of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who came to the convention hall with a smile on his face and a kind word for the GOP leadership. Falwell, who in the past has demanded a prime-time audience for his social agenda, bluntly told his followers to cool it.

"Our crowd needs to get into the battle, keep their mouths shut and help this man win," Falwell told the New York Times.

Likewise, Rep. David Dreier of California said he and his fellow conservatives discovered that "the kind of rigidity that has been spewed forth in the past was not a winner."

"Conservatives have come to a realization that the prospect of giving Bill Clinton -- the anti-Christ -- a third term by electing Al Gore is so frightening, they will do anything they can to prevent it," Dreier adds.

Dreier and others said this change in Republican conservatives was hastened by the departure of Buchanan, who gained prominence in the GOP by emphasizing issues that divided them.

"It's a good thing that Pat Buchanan is no longer in the party," New York Gov. George Pataki said. "Now those who are angry and divisive are not just in the minority, but they are a very small minority."

By packing the convention program with African-American and Latino speakers, Republicans opened themselves to the accusation that they were pandering to minorities. And in fact, Democrats were quick to note that about 85 percent of GOP delegates were still the traditional white Republicans.

But Republicans countered that many of the minority speakers were genuine GOP elected officials such as Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma or prominent Republican policy experts such as Condoleezza Rice.

"The media thinks Republicans just discovered diversity today," said Rep. Henry Bonilla of Texas, one of three Latino Republicans in Congress. "We are not new faces. . . . We're real and we didn't just show up."

Pataki argued that the moderation apparent during the Republican convention is a reflection of the changes that have occurred in the party at the state level. Many Americans have been oblivious to these changes because the GOP leadership in Congress has been more ideologically conservative.

The New York governor said Bush is only one of many Republican governors who have appointed minorities to high offices in their states and have adopted programs such as education reform that have opened new opportunities to African-Americans and Latinos.

But in the final analysis, there is a limit to how far conservatives will yield to their more moderate fellow Republicans. Norred said he would have been more dissatisfied with the moderate tone of the convention if Bush had not chosen Dick Cheney, a staunch conservative, as his vice presidential nominee.

"Cheney was a choice that told all conservatives that we are still the No. 1 voting bloc in the party," Norred said.

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