Republicans side-step abortion fight

THE Republican convention opened yesterday by side-stepping what would have been a savage fight, on the floor of the Astrodome, on abortion rights, but there were a host of other tensions, above all on the economy, that bode little good for President George Bush's re-election effort which starts in earnest this week.

Mr Bush arrived here last night after a campaign speech to Veterans in Indianapolis, in which he gave a foretaste of the rhetoric which will dominate the week. Highlighting his foreign policy record and blaming his domestic failings on a spoiling Democrat- controlled Congress, he talked of 'family values' and 'Spring in America', and took repeated swipes at Governor Bill Clinton for his lack of experience.

Hours earlier, proceedings got under way with unity the omni-present watchword - as it had to be after a new batch of opinion polls showing the President still from 15 to 23 points behind his Democratic challenger. Even arch-conservative Pat Buchanan, who once vowed to carry his primary season challenge to 'King George' all the way to Houston, was expected to fall into line in his address last night.

But behind the heavy facade of harmony, the closing of ranks on abortion, the ritual performances of the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance, the Republicans are anything but one party, undivided.

Under huge pressure from campaign managers, the Pro-Choice lobby abandoned their challenge to the ultra-restrictive official platform, when only four state delegations, instead of the six required, came out in favour of a full-floor debate.

At that point, the white flag was hauled up. 'It's time to unite and get behind George Bush,' said Governor William Weld of Massachusetts, one of the original hold-out states.

But whether abortion fades as an issue in the campaign ahead is another matter. A clear majority of the country, not to mention nearly three-quarters of women Republican voters, favour some degree of choice, almost ensuring the Democrats will keep the spotlight on the controversy right up to 3 November.

In that case, Republicans must hope the contorted, more conciliatory signals sent out lately by President Bush, Barbara Bush and the normally conservative Vice- President Dan Quayle will weigh more with voters than the ferocious language of the official platform approved yesterday, which would ban abortion, even in pregnancies arising from rape and incest. Ann Stone, leader of the party's pro-abortion wing, called the platform 'an insanity'.

The eternal issue of taxes could be another problem, too. Convinced that a return to 'supply side' purity is the answer, conservatives who have shaped the convention agenda are urging Mr Bush to announce tax cuts in his vital acceptance speech on Thursday night.

Both the President and his new Chief of Staff, James Baker, are hinting he may oblige. But the moderate Senate minority leader, Bob Dole, in a notable understatement, admits to 'reservations' on the idea.

Wall Street is still a constituency Mr Bush can count on. But rumours of new cuts produced a mini-slump on the bond market yesterday, reflecting traders' fears that they would only drive up inflation and the dollars 400bn (pounds 208bn) budget deficit.

In short, the right-wing equation which has won the party five of the last six elections may no longer add up.

The first night's scheduled star attraction was ex-President Ronald Reagan, modern Republicanism's most venerable icon, but whose popularity is now less than that of the Democrat he defeated in 1980, the long-discredited Jimmy Carter.

The occasion was bound to be nostalgic. But even the most rousing speech from the beloved 'Gipper' could merely reinforce the Democrats' argument that the country's problems stem from the greedy Reagan 1980s which, they say, President Bush has done nothing to change.

To recapture the initiative the Republicans are already concentrating their fire on the Clinton character and his record in Arkansas.

Rich Bond, the Republican chairman, derided him as a 'failed Governor of a small state', while a delegate referred to him as a 'skirt-chaser'.

President Bush vowed again yesterday to keep away from the 'sleaze business', but left the door open to such activities by his surrogates. 'No one can control everything that everybody says,' he said on television.

(Photograph omitted)

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