Republican Convention in Houston: Unaccustomed underdogs snap under pressure

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LIKE PARENTS at a wedding trying to smother the noise of a furious row between the bride and groom in the vestry, managers of the Republican convention will strain this week to project an aura of harmony and celebration. They may make it through to the ceremony of George Bush's nomination, but it will be tough.

Not since 1976, when Gerald Ford fought and finally lost against Jimmy Carter, have Republicans felt so uneasy at this stage in a campaign. Poll after poll tells them the same thing: Mr Bush needs something close to a miracle to win. What is more, the anxiety is breeding division.

In an uncomfortable role-reversal with the Democrats, the Republicans are split on a number of issues, notably abortion rights and economic policy. Underlying these arguments are factional tensions between conservatives and moderates over campaign strategy and the identity of the party.

The strife over abortion, which may boil over in debate in the hall this evening, is emblematic of that struggle. At pre-convention policy hearings here last week, officials voted amid bitter argument to retain the party's commitment to outlawing abortions as a matter of constitutional law. This in spite of polls showing that even among delegates coming to the convention a majority are against so radical a stance.

While conservatives celebrated the reaffirmation of the anti-abortion position, pro-choice Republicans reacted with fury. Others more dispassionate about the issue worried out loud about the damage done to efforts to woo back the centre vote, in particular the so-called Reagan Democrats who defected to the Republicans in the 1980s but seem to be edging home to Bill Clinton. Apparently aware of the risks, Mr and Mrs Bush last week sent out softer signals from Washington, distancing themselves from the party stand.

A similar fight rages over taxation, with a notable clique of right-wing Republicans, including the Housing Secretary, Jack Kemp, putting public pressure on President Bush to re-establish a course of dramatic tax reductions and deregulation to revive the economy. There was also embarrassing confusion last week over plans to include in the party platform a repudiation of Mr Bush's 1990 retreat on his 'No-New Taxes' pledge of 1988. The White House came down hard on that idea and it had to be ditched.

And all the while the jockeying has been going on, not least by Mr Kemp, for the soul of the party in 1996. Even if Mr Bush wins in November, he is not able, constitutionally, to go for a third term, and the battle to replace him and challenge Vice-President Dan Quayle is under way. Another pretender is Pat Buchanan, Mr Bush's right- wing nemesis in the early primaries, who will reaffirm his conservative agenda in a speech tonight.

Beyond all this, there is the grim discontent of many Republican members of Congress, who see their hopes earlier in the year of pushing back the dominance of Democrats on the Hill sapped by the flagging popularity of the President. Recent polls suggest even a probable Democrat advance after November.

Many, fearing that their own re- election prospects are being jeopardised, have rushed to distance themselves from the President. And, remarkably, more than half of all Republican senators and representatives have said they intend staying away from the convention this time.

For the party managers, the enemy this week will be the domestic media, especially television, with their ears to the vestry door, hungry for stories of disarray and dissent to enliven what would otherwise be a fairly unnewsworthy event. Their only hope is that last week's news of James Baker's transfer to the White House combined with the razzmatazz of events in the hall will combine to lift spirits and stir feelings of loyalty.

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