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Accommodating Without Bursting

Orange County is getting a lot of attention this year as a national proving ground of Republican insurgency. First Lady Barbara Bush got a firsthand glimpse last week when GOP abortion rights activists demonstrated at the opening of a campaign headquarters in Irvine. And squabbling prominent local Republicans have been warring on national TV. In showing the nation a few cracks in the armor, the Orange County GOP, as a microcosm of the national GOP, is beginning to resemble what people usually expect of Democrats.

At the heart of this debate is how big the GOP “tent” can be in one of its most important bastions. In the past, the local party hasn’t brooked many differences, but today the party finds itself under more pressure to accommodate diversity. Orange County showcases this Manichean struggle.

The abortion issue, so divisive in the nation at large, as surely divides local Republicans. Last week, the nomination of one Orange County Republican unhappy with the party’s staunch anti-abortion line sailed unanimously through a state Senate Committee reviewing her gubernatorial appointment. Political consultant Eileen Padberg obviously was qualified for the State Commission on the Status of Women. But that didn’t deter Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), still smarting from a brutal primary campaign challenge that was managed by Padberg. He opposed her nomination in a bitterly worded letter to the committee.

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Other restless Republicans have found themselves similarly scorned. Prominent legislators hurled brickbats at home developer Kathryn Thompson and Western Digital Corp. Chairman Roger W. Johnson after they broke ranks with their party to support Bill Clinton. Thompson talked of hearing from other Republicans “afraid to say anything . . . afraid they’re going to be socially blackballed.” But Thompson and her husband, Lincoln Club Chairman Gus Owen, have shown how many ideas can fit under one roof: She has defected to Clinton, while he supports President Bush enthusiastically.

Clearly, the Big Tent philosophy of Republicans, straining at the national level, is busting a few seams in Orange County. But whatever the differences--on abortion rights or on the economy--there is a range of opinion within the dominant political party of a county seen as synonymous with Republicanism.

While nobody would suggest seriously that the Republicans won’t continue their dominance in Orange County, the Big Tent question is not so likely to go away, either. How Orange County handles the stretching necessary to come up with a “tent” broad enough to accommodate a range of GOP viewpoints is a maneuver that will be watched carefully by Republicans nationwide.


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