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Dole's Delicate Balancing Act

As Republicans celebrate Bob Dole's bold move to focus on the presidential campaign, their candidate still faces the difficult tasks of uniting his party and overcoming President Clinton's substantial lead. These tasks are especially challenging, as Pat Buchanan, still the ideologues' favorite, refuses to step out of the limelight.

If the 1992 campaign offers Mr. Dole any lesson, it is that Mr. Buchanan's continued presence is more than a nuisance. Buchanan may once again try to extract a heavy price for his endorsement, which could spell disaster for Dole.

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Dole is forced into the unenviable position of walking a tightrope, trying to keep Buchanan and his supporters content without offending moderates. Buchanan's bloc includes a substantial share of Christian-right activists who doubt Dole's commitment to their cause but are crucial to his chances.

The Christian right has perhaps 200,000 activists and some 4 million members. Dole benefits enormously if even a portion of the activist core volunteers for his campaign, for the voter contact and dissemination of campaign materials in conservative churches can produce a solid bloc of votes. The total impact of Christian-right activity extends beyond its membership, because voter guides can influence the votes of conservative Christians and even some secular conservatives who do not support the Christian Coalition.

Buchanan's continued candidacy is intended to pressure Dole to retain the pro-life plank in the GOP platform and choose a pro-life running mate. Dole can't afford to repeat Bush's mistake of buckling to Buchanan's demands. The GOP nominee must reach out to social moderates as well as conservatives. Although Bush benefited from Christian conservatives' loyalty in 1992, he also lost the votes of many moderates who thought that the tone of the "family values night" at the GOP convention was mean-spirited.

Should Dole give in to Buchanan, Clinton will be free to paint him as a pawn of the Christian right. Dole cannot allow the campaign to focus on abortion; such a focus, combined with his support for the repeal of the assault-weapons ban, might make him appear to be a radical conservative.

An important Dole ally is Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed, who also faces a delicate balancing act. Reed would like to retain the support of Christian-right purists while molding a pragmatic and more effective movement. Reed has tried to help Dole by building support within the Christian right for a moderate-sounding abortion plank in the GOP platform. But he has run full-square into the opposition of the Buchanan camp, which rejects all efforts to compromise on the issue. Now Reed too must choose between pragmatism and retaining the purists' active support.

Dole still has room to maneuver, for Christian social conservatives despise Clinton. The president's veto of the ban on so-called "partial-birth" abortions has further mobilized his social-conservative opposition.

In the inevitable debate over abortion, Dole's best tack may be to focus on such positions as his support for parental notification and waiting periods, and his opposition to taxpayer-funded and late-term abortions. Polls show that clear majorities support these "reasonable restrictions" on abortion access.

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If Dole can move the discussion away from the broader pro-choice vs. pro-life debate and focus instead on Clinton's opposition to certain popular abortion restrictions, the GOP candidate will have his best chance of retaining the support of the Christian right while not offending moderates.

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