'The devil's fingerprints are all over abortion,' says Dan Martino, who is standing patiently on a tract of open ground allocated for demonstrators at the Republican Convention. He has a large home-made sign: ABORTION IS AMERICA'S HOLOCAUST, and in each arm he hugs a life-size baby doll, one brown, the other white.

Dan Martino is a true believer. He has come down to the convention from Chattanooga, Tennessee, at his own expense; there is probably no more sincere man in Houston.

Maybe Dan Martino is on the nut fringe, but, as has been endlessly reported, at this convention, abortion has become the issue that galvanises Republicans and splits them apart. It has given this tepid, listless convention, probably the last of its kind, a surreal character, where nothing is what it seems. So Dan Martino gets me thinking about what's going on here.

The Republican Party has approved a platform including a plank that urges a constitutional amendment to make all abortion illegal, even in cases of incest and rape. It's a plank an ayatollah could rest on comfortably.

But there are nice people here, ordinary kindly middle-class Republicans from Georgia and Kentucky who tell you about their kids and indulge in a little light promotion for bluegrass country.

Inside the Sheraton Hotel, near the Astrodome, some of them are at a rally called 'For God and Country'. It features Pat Boone, the singer, Pat Robertson, the evangelical preacher, and Vice President Dan Quayle. Pat Boone does not look a day over 1955.

In the lobby are the usual brochures with distorted photographs of abortions, proclaiming 'the Second American Civil War'; crackpot newsletters report on pro-choice networks made up of '. . . atheists, satanists, homosexuals, lesbians and socialists . . .'; other material quotes CS Lewis. Freebies include little pink plastic foetuses and you can buy golden badges of baby tootsies called 'Precious Feet'.

'Please move to my left. Come on now, is that a good Christian attitude? The last shall be first,' proclaims a young man who is trying to get things going.

In their thousands, people squeeze into the hotel ballroom, wearing Pro-Life hats and eating popcorn. Tiny milky babies with chubby fists cling to their parents, borne proudly aloft like prize piglets at a farming exhibition. Older children of three or four sit on the floor, playing; in a stampede, they would be crushed, but they have been brought to testify; for this crowd its children are its politics. Through the assembled, a young man in a hat tows a weary, pretty, pregnant young woman as if she were his lifeboat. 'God Bless America' plays to a disco beat.

'To paraphrase Mark Twain,' a speaker begins, 'the reports of the death of the religious right are much exaggerated. We are here to celebrate the fact that in the last hour the Republican Party passed a pro-life platform. The feminists threw everything they had at us, we won, they lost.'

'We're here to re- elect the living God,' says Pat Boone.

The heat rises, the crowds push forward, the speakers exploit their fervour, cranking them up for God and television.

If this crowd is sincere - and some really are - if, as they see it, abortion is murder, then there can be no compromise; there will be no hostages; this is war.

Suddenly, at the front a small counter protest begins. A quartet from Act-Up, the activist gay organisation tries to unfurl a banner protesting the Republicans' dismissive attitude towards the Aids crisis. A grim-eyed secret service man wrestles them away to a back door, a woman in a red dress follows, screaming: 'We don't want you here]' Like a dervish she jumps and whirls at them: 'We don't want you here] We don't want you here]' She shouts it over and over, as if caught in a bad dream. Sealed up with their propaganda, this crowd does not want anything to disturb its prayers.

I catch up with the four in the hotel parking lot. One young man from Act-Up says: 'It was really scary in there. The crowd turned on us and one woman started shouting: 'Just stop fucking] Stop fucking] Stop fucking]'.'

Sealed in its windowless hotel ballrooms and its monumental airless Astrodome, the radical right has formed itself around the abortion issue. Just as surreal, across town in the rarefied purlieus of Houston's monied, country-club Republicans, some women are wearing not just diamonds the size of golf balls but badges reading: 'Republicans for Choice'. They are talking plain and tough.

'Did you hear the pro-choice badges are outselling all others seven to three?' says June Lyons.

Ms Lyons is larger than life. Her turquoise eyes match her Louis Feraud cocktail suit, her jewels glitter and she is very angry. At the Ritz Carlton Hotel, the place to see and be seen, she is having tea and talking about the ultra- conservative right. 'They are very radical. They don't just want to ban abortion,' says Ms Lyons, who comes from old Houston money and used to live near George and Barbara Bush. 'They want us barefoot and pregnant.

' 'But, oh those feminists]' my friends will say and I say 'wait a minute, I'm one of them'.'

Ms Lyons is not alone. For mainstream Republican women, the anti-abortion stand of their party is an abomination. Republicans believe in a government that interferes as little as possible in its citizens' lives. There's a rising chorus of 'Don't Tread On Me', as if the anti-abortion forces were George III's legions out to strangle the mainstream into

submission.

All over Houston, ladies like Ms Lyons are mad as hell. If she has her way, she says: 'There'll be no more money to Republican candidates not supporting choice.'

The other evening Ms Lyons attended a pro-choice cocktail party, where she encountered an anti-abortion preacher she recognised. 'Why are you here, sir?' she said. 'For God and country,' he said. 'Well,' said Joan Lyons, 'so am I'

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