GOP Grapples Over ‘Big Tent’

Times Staff Writer

President Bush and his political lieutenants want the Republican National Convention in New York this month to exude the same sense of unity that characterized the Democratic love fest in Boston.

But away from the spotlight, infighting appears about to break out over the GOP platform’s stance on gay rights. The issue is important to the White House because the appearance of intolerance could sway critical swing voters.

Log Cabin Republicans, a group of 12,000 gay conservatives, is teaming up with Republicans who support abortion rights to challenge the expected GOP platform on family issues.


The GOP’s platform from 2000 is expected to be the framework for this year’s effort. It declares that marriage is the “legal union of one man and one woman,” and that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”

The Log Cabin Republicans plan to hold a news conference Monday with Republicans for Choice and the Republican Youth Majority to outline their strategy.

Pitching a “party unity plank,” they are suggesting that the platform declare that “Republicans of good faith disagree” on family issues -- language sure to be an anathema to the president and his base of social conservative supporters.

Differences between the White House and Log Cabin Republicans widened in February, when Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

“We are giving President Bush an opportunity for a Sister Souljah moment,” said Christopher Barron, political director of the Log Cabin Republicans. “This is an opportunity for the president to make clear that the GOP is a big tent. If there’s room in the party for free-traders and protectionists, they’ve got to make room for us.”

During the 1992 campaign, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton repudiated rapper Sister Souljah, saying that her suggestion that blacks kill whites was as racist as the anti-black rhetoric of KKK leader David Duke. Clinton’s words drew reprimands from some African American leaders, but boosted his image among moderate voters as a Democrat who had support among blacks but was not beholden to special interests.


Now, gay Republicans hope to embolden Bush to embrace their “big tent” language in the platform, signaling to social conservatives that the party has room for gays and for voters who back abortion rights.

Social conservatives think that unlikely -- a change in platform language now “would be puzzling,” said Reagan domestic policy aide Gary Bauer. But Log Cabin officials said they saw some movement by the administration last week.

President Bush, in an interview with CNN’s Larry King on Thursday, said the debate over gay marriage “must be conducted with the greatest respect for people ... I think our society is great because people are able to live their lifestyles, you know, as they choose or as they’re oriented.”

Estimates are that 25% of the 4 million gays who voted in 2000 went for Bush, and the Log Cabin Republicans are marshaling their voting power and strategies to bolster their cause. If the platform committee, which meets the week before the convention, rejects their plank, they hope to collect enough signatures from six state delegations to force a fight on the floor -- a prospect convention planners dread.

The proposed unity plank states: “We recognize and respect that Republicans of good faith may not agree with all the planks in the party’s platform. This is particularly the case with regard to those planks dealing with abortion, family planning, and gay and lesbian issues. The Republican Party welcomes all people on all sides of these complex issues and encourages their active participation as we work together on those issues upon which we agree.”

When Bush announced this year that he supported a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, the Log Cabin Republicans responded with a $1-million ad campaign. Rolled out in Washington, D.C., and seven battleground states, the ads quoted Vice President Dick Cheney -- whose daughter, Mary, is openly lesbian -- as saying that gay marriage is a matter for state, not federal regulation.


Log Cabin Executive Director Patrick Guerriero has said that Bush jeopardized the group’s endorsement with his support for the constitutional ban. A final decision on endorsement is expected after the GOP convention in New York.

Political observers say Bush is unlikely to accept the overture from gay Republicans for a unity plank.

By advocating a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, they say Bush has calculated that he would rather risk the votes of the estimated 1 million gays and lesbians who voted for him in 2000 than anger evangelicals who feel passionately about the issue.

White House political strategist Karl Rove has estimated that 4 million religious conservatives stayed away from the polls in the last election.

In one recent example of the White House commitment to ideological unanimity on abortion, campaign workers evicted a woman and her family from a Bush rally because she was carrying a rolled-up T-shirt with an abortion-rights slogan.

Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said, “the Bush campaign has decided it would be more risky for them to try to somehow compromise on either abortion or gay rights than to lose the religious right in particular, which they see as a major component of their base.”


The White House strategy is not without risk, particularly among swing voters, thought to have sensitive antennae to policies that reflect intolerance.

“Our constituents are ready to walk,” said Ann Stone, founder and chairwoman of Republicans for Choice, a political action committee with 150,000 members which has joined forces with the Log Cabin Republicans. “Our message to the president is: ‘Stay out of the bedroom.’ ”

Even with the presidential race a close call, moderate social Republicans will need a lot of attention to their cause to force the president to embrace their plank, Abramowitz said.

“It depends on how much publicity they can get, and how far they are willing to go to criticize the administration,” he said. “If the president and the party are perceived as intolerant, it could alienate swing voters.”

To generate public heat, the Log Cabin Republicans are holding a “Big Tent” party in New York on Aug. 29 -- the night before the convention opens.

Hosted by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg -- a moderate who has been castigated on conservative websites as a pretend Republican whose Cabinet is stacked with liberal Democrats -- the event will honor “inclusive” Republican governors, among them California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York’s George E. Pataki.


The platform committee is led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Rep. Melissa A. Hart of Pennsylvania -- all abortion foes. Many of the 110 committee members are also against abortion and are not expected to endorse the unity plank.

Bauer, head of the Campaign for Working Families, said a platform challenge was all but unimaginable.

“The president is unambiguously pro-life, and he has repeatedly said he is in favor of a constitutional amendment on marriage, so it would be puzzling at a convention that is clearly a George Bush convention.”

The Log Cabin organization was founded in San Francisco to battle a 1978 ballot initiative that would have prevented gays and lesbians from working as public school teachers in California.

The first Log Cabin chapter -- named for the humble beginnings of the country’s most famous Republican president, Abraham Lincoln -- enlisted help from former Gov. Ronald Reagan in a successful bid to defeat the restriction.

Now, they are fighting an incumbent president eager to cement his ties to social conservatives without offending the swing voters who could provide the margin of victory in November.


“There’s a growing anger among the 1 million gays and lesbians who voted for the president in 2000 that his campaign is using us as a wedge issue,” Barron said.

“We know that a majority of Americans are opposed to gay marriage, and we’re not asking for that. We’re asking for a platform that reflects our face.”


Times staff writer Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.