GOP divide deepens on abortion, immigration, gay rights


TAMPA, Fla. — For Republicans, this week’s national convention is a chance to put aside differences and give presidential nominee Mitt Romney a celebratory boost into the fall campaign.

But behind the harmonious images that Romney aides have worked hard to produce, Republicans face a frightening demographic future and a party civil war.

Polls show that the GOP is united today more by an intense desire to defeat President Obama than by enthusiasm for Romney. The former Massachusetts governor made it to the nomination after a long and bruising primary contest that exposed continuing strains within the party.

PHOTOS: Convention preparations

In Tampa, social and religious conservatives plan to flock to events with Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. Libertarians are rallying with Ron Paul. Newt Gingrich, one of several presidential contenders favored by tea partyers, is to preside over policy seminars for delegates.

Handling the ideological schisms will require a deft touch: Giving the microphone to a vanquished primary foe can backfire. Pat Buchanan’s “culture war” speech to the 1992 GOP convention, intended to fire up disillusioned conservatives, wound up turning off moderate voters and contributed to President George H.W. Bush’s reelection defeat that year.

This time, with an eye toward broadening the Republican Party’s appeal to undecided voters, Romney strategists have tried to keep the focus on healthcare and the public’s dissatisfaction with Obama’s handling of the economy. Pushed as far into the background as possible: strictly conservative stances that Romney adopted in the primaries on immigration and social issues, including same-sex marriage and abortion, that helped win over the GOP’s base.

But it is the collision of those issues — one of them brought sharply into focus last week by a Missouri U.S. Senate candidate’s incendiary comments about rape and abortion — and population shifts that may pose the biggest threat to the party.

Latinos, the fastest-growing demographic group in recent years, are put off by the party’s immigration stance. Younger voters reject its positions on abortion, same-sex marriage and attendant issues — such as contraception — which Democrats have used against the GOP for months. Republicans are becoming an older and whiter party in a nation that is becoming less so. Unless Republicans can broaden their appeal, the party’s viability could ultimately be in doubt.

Nowhere is the looming difficulty more apparent than among Latinos. The coalition that Romney will try to mobilize this November will be made up overwhelmingly of non-Latino whites (89% of Romney’s current supporters are white, according to national polling by the Pew Research Center). Looking ahead, the nation’s white majority will continue to shrink, according to demographers. Minorities, and particularly the Latino community, will make up an ever-increasing share of the population.

Romney attracted support from just 28% of Latino voters in a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal-Telemundo poll, with a plurality expressing negative feelings about the Republican Party.

“There’s no compelling evidence that the traditional conservative approach to the economy, or foreign policy, or education can’t be successful in a national election. But what’s absolutely clear is that the party needs to find a way to broaden its demographic base to even be heard on those issues,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican consultant who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

“National Republicans have made a calculated decision, for about 20 years now, that it’s worth writing off states like California in exchange for a secure base of support in the South and in the near West [Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states]. But California’s demographic makeup isn’t nearly as unique as it was in the 1990s,” Schnur said. “Romney’s advisers make the case that Latinos are much more interested in the economy than in immigration. That may be true. But if voters don’t think that you respect them as human beings, they’re not going to listen to what you have to say about the capital gains tax or start-up loans for small business.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American Republican from Florida, has described immigration as a “gateway issue” for reaching Latino ears and, ultimately, breaking a Democratic lock on their votes. But Jack Pitney, a former Republican aide who teaches politics at Claremont McKenna College, said the anti-illegal-immigration passions within the GOP’s voting base conflict with the desire of party politicians and strategists to reach out to Latinos.

“The pattern is that a stand on immigration that’s good for winning a primary is bad for Hispanics in terms of winning the general election. I don’t know that there’s an easy way out of that,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the Republicans, but it does spell challenge.”

Schnur called immigration “a boulder in the middle of the road for the Republican Party. But there’s an opportunity there for Republicans, if they decide to take advantage of it. Marco Rubio tried to throw Romney a lifeline when he proposed his own version of the Dream Act earlier this year. Romney might not have won the debate over immigration, but he would have at least been able to argue about the relative merits of two different versions of the Dream Act. And Romney let it go.”

Promoting leaders who can appeal to Latinos could be one way out for Republicans. As recently as 2004, President George W. Bush, who tried unsuccessfully to push an immigration overhaul through Congress and spoke passable Spanish, received about 40% of the Latino vote. But it is worth noting that, much as Bush could not convince his fellow Republicans to buy into a plan, Rubio shelved his version of the Dream Act after making no headway among Republicans.

Similarly, the party’s conservative social policies are impeding the effort to attract a new generation of voters. The GOP’s no-exceptions antiabortion stance has not budged for 30 years, as Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, the party’s platform committee chairman, reminded reporters last week.

During the platform deliberations, only one participant broached the subject of Rep. Todd Akin’s remarks in Missouri about “legitimate” rape — a 22-year-old, socially conservative Santorum delegate, Jackie Curtiss of Alabama, who said afterward that her party’s unyielding attitudes on social issues were the reason that college-educated women were supporting Obama over Romney by a 2-1 margin.

Polling of voters ages 18 to 29 has shown that a majority hold views that run counter to the GOP stance on same-sex marriage and abortion rights. At the same time, the party’s image only makes it harder for Republicans to gain credibility with many young Americans, who hold an unfavorable opinion of the party, polls show. Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, said Republicans “should be worried about their long-term brand on these issues.”

“The younger generation is the most diverse in American history and thinks of itself as very tolerant and pro-diversity,” Levine said. “On top of that, you get the social issues, with the gay-related issues being the best example. It fits into a broader narrative that [Republicans] are basically the party of the older, white, straight people.”

Regardless of whether Romney, 65, wins the presidency, his candidacy is likely the last hurrah for his generation’s brand of Republicanism. Four years from now, or eight, younger figures will lead the debate about the party’s future.

If Romney is elected, Paul D. Ryan could be an influential Republican force for years to come. If the ticket falls short, intraparty warfare will likely resume right after the Nov. 6 election.

The battle lines are increasingly clear, both ideologically and generationally. Social conservative forces are led by former presidential contender Santorum, a favorite of evangelical Christians. Those pressing to broaden the party’s appeal include some of its rising figures, such as the tea party’s Rubio and Texas Senate hopeful Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, libertarian Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. All are scheduled to speak in Tampa. Their supporters will be cheering them on, ready to resume the fight.

PHOTOS: Convention preparations