HOUSTON -- The Republicans open four days of platform deliberations today facing the prospect of a scarring argument over abortion rights even before the national convention starts next Monday.
The Bush campaign has enough control over the 106-member platform committee and the convention itself to assure a plank like those in the 1984 and 1988 platforms calling for a constitutional amendment forbidding abortion.
But the minority supporting abortion rights is vociferous enough to give the issue the kind of prominence that President Bush and his strategists would rather avoid as they strive to hold together a party coalition of religious fundamentalists and so-called "country club" Republicans largely from the suburbs.
Charles Black, senior adviser to the campaign overseeing the platform meetings, said he is confident that "we won't change the substantive language" that takes a tough line against abortion rights. But he said there might be "some additional recognition of diversity" -- meaning some language elsewhere in the document defining the party as open to differing views. This is what the late party chairman Lee Atwater called the "big tent" approach.
But neither side in the dispute is agreed on what, if anything, would be acceptable. Although some opponents of abortion rights might accept such a line, others -- including Phyllis Schlafly, a leader of the Republican National Coalition for Life -- have taken the position that any such language would amount to Mr. Bush "caving in" on the issue.
Nor is there agreement among the three or four ad hoc committees supporting abortion rights. Some are willing to accept a "big tent" definition in the preamble to the platform, but others are insisting that the demand for a constitutional amendment be dropped. And still others -- including several members of the Senate -- are urging that the subject be left out of the platform entirely.
The issue is especially touchy because opinion polls and election returns have shown that there is at least a measurable minority of Republican women, most of them from suburban areas, who will defect to express their support for abortion rights. In the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial election, for example, that group may have amounted to more than 5 percent of Republican women in suburban areas, enough to elect Democrat L. Douglas Wilder in an extremely close contest.
The GOP campaign strategists' concern is that a similar defection from Mr. Bush could cost him the electoral votes of such major, closely contested states as California, Pennsylvania and Illinois. The strategists' preference would be to bury the issue as deeply as possible.
But that may be difficult.
The abortion-rights supporters lack the 27 votes needed on the platform committee to bring a minority plank to the convention floor for a vote under the regular rules. And at this point, they also apparently lack the delegate votes -- a majority of six state delegations -- to bring the issue to the floor by moving to suspend the rules.
But even some Republicans who have no intention of defecting from Mr. Bush may be unwilling to suppress discussion of the question in the convention. And if a motion to suspend the rules can be made, there is nothing to prevent the abortion-rights forces from using the debate to talk about the merits of the issue.
Abortion will not be the only topic of debate here while the platform committee meets in subcommittees and then in full committee to writethe final version of the various planks. Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative commentator who ran against the president in the primaries, is planning challenges on a number of issues, among them immigration policy and foreign aid.
But Mr. Buchanan has even less support than the abortion-rights groups and less chance of forcing changes in the platform, most of which was drafted weeks ago under the supervision of the Bush campaign staff.
There is also some pressure from other conservatives -- including Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp and Minority Whip Newt Gingrich -- urging the president to use the platform to announce a dramatic new economic program, including tax cuts and ceilings on entitlement programs. But the latter would include Social Security, and the White House is not about to go into an election campaign proposing cuts in benefits for retired Americans.
In all of these cases, the campaign has the cards to win. But in a situation in which there is likely to be little other news generated, even the sure losers on the abortion issue can attract the kind of attention another loser, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, attracted at the Democratic convention a month ago.