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Christian right splits the Republicans: Political mobilisation of religious radicals in America is sidelining moderates and threatening the party's ability to regain power

THE QUESTION should not have shocked. There is, after all, a civil war going on in the Minnesota Republican Party. Before acquiescing to the interview, Allen Quist, renegade candidate for state governor, wanted to check that I was not an agent of the enemy. 'They like to get journalists to do their dirty work for them, see,' he explains. 'They have them write distorted pieces about me and then they circulate them to their people.'

A touch paranoid perhaps, but Quist, a strict Lutheran and father of 10, has reason to be wary. By putting himself forward as an ultra-conservative challenger to the incumbent governor, Arne Carlson, a moderate Republican, he is nothing if not controversial. With an army of disciples drawn mostly from the churches, he has split his state party in two and almost destroyed it. And his rise is triggering alarm among Republicans nationally.

Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and a respected conservative commentator, says what is happening here may be an omen of battles to come between moderate Republicans and the Christian right all over the country. It is 'the worst-case scenario for what people predicted would happen to the Republicans nationally', he said last week. 'It validates what we are beginning to see in some other states - Virginia, Texas, South Carolina - and is something we should all be concerned about.'

In those and other states, the Christian right is increasingly showing its strength, most usually by taking power at the lower levels of government, in local school boards and city councils. That Minnesota is adding itself to the list might surprise. With its open horizons of soya and maize and long record of electing Democratic presidents, it does not seem like a hotbed of right-wing radicalism. In America, and even abroad, the state is better known as home to Garrison Keillor, the laconic humorist (of Lake Wobegon fame) and an avowed Clinton fan. But with a population descended in large part from Scandinavian immigrants, it has a reputation for stern social probity. It is also home to the national anti-

abortion movement.

Conservative-moderate tensions in the national party, which threaten unity in the run- up to the 1996 presidential race, were exposed in a recent internal survey of members' policy views. It was on abortion that they were most striking, with 48 per cent of the party expressing flat-out opposition to abortion and almost 42 per cent favouring a woman's right to choose. Critics say Quist's appeal is almost entirely based on his zealous stance against abortion and also gay rights.

The Quist phenomenon is a lesson in how grass-roots voters can be mobilised to propel a conservative candidate. After recruiting supporters mostly through churches, he poured them into precinct and county caucus meetings held earlier this spring to pick delegates for a state-wide Republican convention in June. So successful was the strategy, Quist will control 70 per cent of delegates at the convention, virtually ensuring he gets his party's endorsement as candidate for governor. Carlson will still have a chance to stop him in a primary race, but will do so from behind.

The long-serving Republican activists who have been swept aside by the Quist tide are bitter and bewildered. Joyce Bagne, a prominent party organiser from Rochester in the south, has found herself denied a seat at the state convention for the first time in more than 20 years. A well-known conservative in the party, she was none the less forced off her county delegation because she would not declare loyalty to Quist. 'I used to consider myself a conservative,' she says. 'I am pro- life, pro-family, the whole thing. But, apparently, I'm middle of the road now.'

At some meetings, whole congregations reportedly arrived on buses that had designations such as 'Assembly of God' and 'Free Church' emblazoned on their sides. Some old hands were told by the newcomers that if they did not support Quist they risked being dispatched to hell. According to Bagne, they were mostly

new faces who had never before attended political meetings. 'I think they were pre- programmed. They have no thinking power of their own or any idea what it is all about,' she complains.

The best hope for Carlson, who is pro-choice on abortion and has never been close to conservatives, will be to depict his opponent as a nut. Quist is careful to play down religion and stresses the economic as well as the Quayle-style 'family value' elements of his platform. There may be a deep mine, however, for Carlson to exploit. During our interview in St Peter, his home town, Quist confirmed his belief that, in a household, the husband is genetically predisposed to be master of his wife. 'In marriage, there is a political arrangement between the man and a wife, and in the political arrangement the man should be the head of the house. I think it's instinctive,' said Quist, 49, who served as a state legislator in the mid-1980s. 'I know it's true. You look in the animal world versus the human and it's virtually universal in the animal world.'

Quist also recalls the death of his first wife seven years ago when she was pregnant. He had the undertaker remove the 6 1/2 - month foetus from the womb and display it in his dead wife's arms lying in a glass-fronted casket. That way, he said, he and his family were able fully to grieve the unborn child.

He sees the attacks coming and dismisses them as fear- mongering by the 'country club' party establishment - Vin Weber included - which is desperate not to lose power. And as to the legitimacy of his candidacy, Quist has no doubts. He is convinced the Republican Party has to reassert its 'historical convictions' - for instance, on abortion, opposition to the gay agenda, the right to bear arms. 'Otherwise it will have relegated itself to a permanent minority status,' he contends. 'There is a sea-change that we are riding, a wave of very large change, and if the Republican Party does not ride this wave nationwide we are going to lose ground, not gain. Part of my strategy is to change the direction of the Republican Party.'

It is a party that is no stranger to rebellions from the right. There was Goldwater in the 1960s and Reagan in the late 1970s. 'It is an updated version of what Ronald Reagan put together 14 years ago,' Quist insists.

This infuriates Weber. 'When he talks about Ronald Reagan he is so disingenuous. Reagan reached out to the conservatives, but he was equally adamant about keeping the moderates and holding together a broad coalition. He would never, ever have countenanced what is going on in Minnesota and in some other states.' Moreover, the Goldwater and Reagan revolutions came from the top of the party. That the present one is coming from the grass-roots worries Weber about as much as it pleases Quist. 'This is a very different thing,' says Weber. 'We're splitting the party this time from the bottom up.'

(Photograph omitted)