HOUSTON -- We used to wonder how the Democrats could reconcile their diverse factions -- blacks, Southern whites, union members, academics, farmers, Jewish voters. These days it is more relevant to ask how President Bush can reconcile the very different constituencies he needs to win the election Nov. 3.
The most obvious difference is between Bush's original base, generally moderate Republicans, and the group that he inherited from Ronald Reagan, the religious right. The only thing they seem to have in common is that both groups are overwhelmingly white.
The gulf between them was obvious in the deliberations of the party's platform committee here. It was a committee stacked with the fundamentalists of the Far Right by the Bush campaign to avoid any possibility the president might be embarrassed by a floor fight over the abortion plank.
That part worked fine. The moderates who wanted either to soften or remove the platform's draconian opposition to all abortions never came close to putting together the 25 percent of the 107-member committee that would force a minority report to the convention floor. On the contrary, the few tests of strength indicated they probably didn't have 15 percent of the committee.
The result was a document that was far more conservative than those on which Ronald Reagan ran in 1980 and 1984 and Bush himself in 1988. The religious right loaded the platform with gay bashing, demands for more prayer and even a testament to the Judeo-Christian ethic.
Bush clearly is willing to swallow anything these latter-day allies have to offer. It was in response to this group, for example, that he fired the head of the National Endowment for the Arts eight days before Bush's March 3 primary contest with Patrick J. Buchanan.
Meanwhile, the suburban and small-town Republicans, most of them moderate conservatives, have been left with nothing to celebrate. On the contrary, their assignment now is to go back home and try to persuade their friends of similar views not to abandon the party on the abortion issue. "Never mind about other Republican women," said one moderate longtime backer of Bush, "I can't even guarantee my own kids will support the ticket, not after this."
The gulf between the two groups isn't only a question of their differences on issues. It is a more fundamental difference in their cultural concerns and political thinking.
The mainstream Republicans have no history of thinking of political issues in terms of good and evil. In their eyes, the differences between Republicans and Democrats have been largely over the degree to which they relied on government activism rather than free enterprise to deal with both economic and social problems. Religion has been something you didn't mix with politics.
By contrast, the fundamentalists see moral content in virtually every political decision. It is not enough to condemn the Democrats as advocates of "tax and spend." They must be denounced for failing to denounce alternative lifestyles. Abortion must be equated with "murder." Only the Far Right's definition of "family values" can be accepted.
A further problem for Bush, however, is the fact that none of this passion has any appeal to a third group he needs to survive Nov. 3 -- independents and the so-called Reagan Democrats who crossed party lines for Reagan and then for Bush because of their conviction the Democratic Party had become dominated by soft-headed liberals who would tax them into poverty to finance welfare programs primarily for blacks.
He opinion polls make it clear they have a single overriding concern this year -- the condition of the economy and the possibility their own jobs are in jeopardy. The reason Bush is running 20 to 25 points behind Bill Clinton right now is that he has failed to persuade these voters that he has a plan for righting the economy in his second term.
There is, of course, a way that Bush can survive by melding these diverse constituencies between now and Election Day -- by cutting Clinton into small pieces and making him seem too much of a risk to install in the Oval Office. And that is undoubtedly the strategy the Bush campaign will follow.
If there are two adjectives to describe the Republican Party as its national convention opens here, they are pessimistic and defensive.
This was nowhere clearer than in the rhetoric of President Bush and his putative allies on the eve of the first session. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, for example, showed up on NBC to shoot down the idea that the president can solve his problem by proposing a tax cut in his acceptance speech. Mr. Bush, he conceded, "does need to make some dramatic statements" to get his campaign on track, but "a tax cut by itself . . . would be bad medicine" and, anyway, couldn't be enacted until next year.
Mr. Dole was equally bearish on the abortion issue. Asked whether he would press for a constitutional amendment to forbid abortion, he replied: "It wouldn't be a priority, no."
Republican National Committee Chairman Richard N. Bond, trying to find some ray of light, was telling a story about his flight to Houston. A couple seated nearby was sharply criticizing Mr. Bush when the man said, " 'Yeah, but this Clinton is so slick. He gives used car salesmen a good name." Whereupon the woman replied: "If Bush gives me anything remotely positive, I'm going to vote for him."
In other words, Mr. Bond was saying, the best thing this incumbent has going for him are the flaws of his opponent. What a testimonial.