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Republicans Begin Task of Mending a Torn Party

Finding common ground to legislate could be difficult with GOP's small majority.

In the annals of American politics, rarely has so little change brought so much soul-searching.

The Republicans suffered a net loss of only five seats last week in the 435-seat House of Representatives, no Senate seats, and one governorship. They still hold a majority of all three.

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But they were counting on gains - particularly in the House, where the majority, come January, will be a mere 12 seats. The shock of failed expectations has placed intense focus on where the GOP is heading.

Religious conservatives, who lost many key races around the country, are rethinking how to approach moral issues in electoral politics. One House conservative, Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, predicts his wing of the party won't push for as many anti-abortion votes, so as not to cause moderates so much grief.

Some Republicans, in turn, are game to go head-to-head against the Democrats on "their" turf - education, health care, and Social Security - but with a GOP spin. Other Republican regulars insist the party should adhere to its traditional agenda: lower taxes, smaller government, and less regulation.

One thing that's certain is the departure of Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House will do little, of itself, to resolve the ideological, regional, and stylistic differences of Republicans. When the lawyerly Bob Livingston of Louisiana wins the nod next week to replace the firebrand Mr. Gingrich, his job will be more to manage the myriad factions than to reach some kind of consensus on what Republicanism is in the late 1990s.

"The Republican Party looks like a geological map of California - it is criss-crossed with fault lines," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California and a former GOP staffer.

Conservative quarters

Republican voters can be roughly divided into four groups: liberals (19 percent), big-business Republicans (22 percent), big-government conservatives (23 percent), and religious conservatives (29 percent), according to a national survey conducted this fall by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University.

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Lest Democrats get smug, the survey found their voters broke into five groups. For now, though, the divisions among Republicans are more visible because they constitute the governing majority and control the agenda.

"At the elite level, it's even more complicated," says John Green, a political analyst at the University of Akron in Ohio.

Not only do political leaders adhere to certain beliefs, but they can also identify with party leadership, particular committees, or primarily with their districts.

Some Republican governors hailed as "moderates" actually hold quite conservative views, such as Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, a champion of welfare reform and school choice. His image comes more from his pragmatic style.

Splits upon splits

In congressional politics, Republican alliances can shift issue to issue. Even among religious conservatives, the Catholics often don't see eye-to-eye with the evangelicals, except on abortion.

The pro-gun crowd includes a lot of religious conservatives, plus libertarians. The pro-business wing also includes many from the religious right, but the alliance isn't a two-way street; for some business interests, the moral concerns of religious conservatives don't belong in politics at all.

One group that took a big hit in last week's vote was the religious right. Many of "their" candidates went down to defeat, such as South Carolina Gov. David Beasley and Kentucky House candidate Gex Williams. Individual reasons could be cited - with Mr. Beasley, the lottery issue, with Mr. Williams, ethical questions.

Political observers note that Christian conservatives still proved instrumental in electing their candidates in tough fights. Of the candidates they endorsed, about two-thirds won. But what the Nov. 3 election emphasized was that the religious right is really a minority within the GOP.

"The problem the Republicans have is what any large party has, coalition management," says Jim Pinkerton, a former policy official with the Reagan administration. "You've got to figure out a message that not only flies in Texas, but also the rest of the country."

The GOP can learn some lessons from the Democrats, who controlled Congress for 40 years, until 1994, and managed to keep their factions working together most of that time. The difference, however, is that the congressional Democrats never had to legislate with such a small majority.

For House Republican moderates, that thin majority presents an edict to the party leadership: "We have to get back to the issues that unite the Republican Party," says John McKernan, chairman of a year-old alliance of GOP moderates, known as the Republican Main Street Partnership. "People want good schools, safe schools, not abolishing the Department of Education."

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