In recent years, the Republican Party aimed to broaden its appeal with a "big-tent" strategy of reaching out to voters who might typically lean Democratic. But now a debate is growing within the GOP about whether the tent has become too big -- by including gays whose political views may conflict with the goals of the party's powerful evangelical conservatives.
Some Christians, who are pivotal to the GOP's get-out-the-vote effort, are charging that gay Republican staffers in Congress may have thwarted their legislative agenda. There even are calls for what some have dubbed a "pink purge" of high-ranking gay Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the administration.
The long-simmering tension in the GOP between gays and the religious right has erupted into open conflict at a sensitive time, just weeks before a midterm election that may cost Republicans control of Congress.
"The big-tent strategy could ultimately spell doom for the Republican Party," said Tom McClusky, chief lobbyist for the Family Research Council, a Christian advocacy group. "All a big-tent strategy seems to be doing is attracting a bunch of clowns."
Now the GOP is facing a hard choice -- risk losing the social conservatives who are legendary for turning out the vote, or risk alienating the moderate voters who are crucial to this election's outcome.
"There's a huge schism on the right," said Mike Rogers, a gay-rights activist who runs a blog to combat what he calls hypocrisy among conservative gay politicians. "The fiscal conservatives are furious at the religious conservatives, because they need the moderates for economic policy. But they need the social conservatives to turn out the vote."
A recent incident that upset social conservatives involved remarks by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week. With First Lady Laura Bush looking on, Rice swore in Mark R. Dybul as U.S. global AIDS coordinator while his partner, Jason Claire, held the Bible. Claire's mother was in the audience, and Rice referred to her as Dybul's "mother-in-law."
"The Republican Party is taking pro-family conservatives for granted," said Mike Mears, executive director of the political action committee of Concerned Women for America, which promotes biblical values. "What Secretary Rice did just the other day is going to anger quite a few people."
It's not just anger at Rice that worries Republicans; it's the possible effect on evangelical voters next month.
The Dybul incident "was totally a damper to the base that we need to turn out," said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a California lobbying group that focuses on religious and social issues.
Adding to the conservative Christians' disaffection has been a new book asserting that the White House used President Bush's faith-based initiative for political purposes while mocking evangelicals behind their backs.
The tension between Republican gays and evangelicals has been highlighted in recent weeks by the scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned over explicit messages he sent to underage male House pages.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a television interview last week that there should be an investigation into whether gay congressional staffers were responsible for covering up for Foley.
Perkins also has questioned whether gay Republican staffers on Capitol Hill have torpedoed evangelicals' priorities, such as a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. "Has the social agenda of the GOP been stalled by homosexual members and/or staffers?" he asked in an e-mail to supporters.
Some social conservatives deny they are interested in removing gay staffers from the party.
"We're not calling for what I've heard referred to as a pink purge," McClusky said. "We're asking that members [of Congress] might want to reflect on who's serving them: Are they representing their boss' interest?"
Mears of Concerned Women for America said purging gays from the GOP would not necessarily help the evangelical cause. "If you get rid of all the homosexuals in Congress and on the staff, you'd still have Republicans like Chris Shays [the Connecticut congressman] and Susan Collins [the Maine senator] pushing the gay agenda."
This week, a list that is said to name gay Republican staffers has been circulated to several Christian and family values groups -- presumably to encourage an outing and purge. McClusky acknowledged seeing the list but said his group did not produce it and had no intention of using it.
Still, gay Republican staffers on Capitol Hill say it feels as if the noose is tightening. Fearful of having their names on such a list and losing their jobs after the election, they are trying to keep a low profile.
None of the gay Republican staffers contacted for this article would speak for the record.
But Eric Johnson, a former GOP staffer who left the party over its policies on gays and who now works for a Democrat on the Hill, said many of his old friends were worried.
"There's a real concern, a legitimate concern, about a lower glass ceiling -- preventing them from attaining higher positions in the party," Johnson said. "Most Republicans do lip service to the conservative side of gay issues. But on hiring practices, most of them have been pretty reasonable."
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, has a campaign manager who is gay. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who linked gay sex to bestiality, has a press secretary who is gay. Both senators are in perilous races for reelection, and neither staffer would comment.
The GOP has at times seemed a bit disjointed in its approach to gay issues. Political advisor Karl Rove ran Bush's reelection campaign in 2004 by mobilizing opposition to same-sex marriage, even as Vice President Dick Cheney said consenting adults of any orientation should be free to marry. Cheney's daughter Mary is a lesbian, and her partner was welcomed at presidential events.
The president recently reappointed Israel Hernandez, a gay man who had been a personal aide to Bush when he was Texas governor, to be assistant secretary of Commerce and head of an international trade office.
The Republican National Party says its tent is open to anyone who shares its political views.
"The Republican Party welcomes individuals from all walks of life," said Republican National Committee Press Secretary Tracey Schmitt.
Regarding the threat of losing support from social conservatives, she added: "Our core supporters understand that a Congress led by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi [the Senate and House minority leaders] would be devoid of a values agenda. They are mobilized and committed to electing Republicans on Nov. 7."