GOP hopes for smoother meeting Local Democrats gear up for their national convention

August 09, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

As Howard County Republicans head to their national convention next week in San Diego, they share a dream: that the 1996 convention not resemble 1992, when battles over social issues left local party activists bitter and divided.

That year, Joan Athen, the county's foremost veteran of GOP national conventions, walked off the floor halfway through Pat Buchanan's now-famous speech declaring a cultural war for the heart and soul America.

"I was embarrassed for the party," said Athen, who like many local activists is less conservative on social issues than the powerful Republican right that Buchanan represents. "We are a much broader-based party than what Buchanan was saying."

In Howard County, the party's focus on the economic issues important to suburbanites has in the past six years won it control of the county's top elective offices even though Democrats still hold a majority in voter registration.

At the 1996 Republican convention starting Monday, Athen will be joined by state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe of Ellicott City, County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Louis Pope, a member of the county Republican Central Committee, who will serve as McCabe's alternate.

The Democrats open their national convention in Chicago on Aug. 26, and local activists seem to have unified behind President Clinton.

The conventions, attended by party activists from around the country, focus exclusively on national issues.

They are part pep rally, part strategy session, with the goal of energizing activists and focusing them on the core issues that leaders believe will get the nominee -- in the case of Republicans, likely Bob Dole -- elected.

The Republican convention in 1992 left the party fractured over social issues such as abortion, homosexuality and the role of women, while most voters were more worried about the lingering recession.

"You felt like it was almost a defeatist atmosphere," said Ecker, who attended in 1992 but not as a delegate. "It was a divisive convention, and we weren't pulling together as we left there."

Said McCabe: "I think in that speech, it came across that Pat Buchanan is intolerant, and thereby, the Republicans are intolerant."

For this convention, Buchanan has been a major force in shaping the party platform, but organizers have worked to deny him the kind of prime-time stage he had in 1992.

McCabe said the platform battles will largely be forgotten if the major speech-givers -- including Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- can convey tolerance and enthusiasm for the economic messages of lower taxes, smaller government and a balanced budget.

Local Republicans also hope to focus on character issues such as honesty, courage and integrity -- areas where they believe Dole, a wounded World War II veteran, outshines Clinton.

Convention speakers can be counted on to talk about the rise of teen-age drug use. Republicans argue Clinton has shown little leadership on the issue.

Ecker would like to keep the focus on reducing the federal deficit.

"I certainly hope we don't get tied up in the abortion issue," he said. "The presidency is too important to get caught up in one litmus test. We need to reduce the deficit. I think that ought to be the No. 1 priority."

To Athen, who has not missed a Republican National Convention since 1976, the key is keeping Buchanan off prime time: "He could be dangerous. I'd rather see him not speak. It's not going to benefit Dole if Buchanan speaks."

For the Democratic National Convention, state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer of Columbia, Democratic Central Committee Chairwoman Carole Fisher and Columbia party activist Susan vTC Dotson will be delegates from Howard County.

County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, also of Columbia, plans to attend the convention as an alternate.

In years past, Democrats were the ones known for divisive conventions, but in the primary elections, Clinton was able to forestall challenges within his party.

Now, two years after Republicans took over Congress, local Democratic activists seem to have unified behind Clinton as their best chance of keeping power -- even though he recently signed a welfare bill many liberals dislike.

"Why do liberals support Bill Clinton?" said Fisher, who considers herself one. "Because we have enough common sense to know that by supporting him, we get back in the White House."

Pub Date: 8/09/96

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