GOP platform ready for convention; education challenge fails

PHILADELPHIA - The Republican platform committee on Saturday approved the principles the party will take into the election after George W. Bush fought off a conservative challenge to his centerpiece education plan.

The committee restored Bush's education agenda, which had been stripped by a panel a day earlier, after a lobbying blitz that involved the candidate himself.

''He called this morning to make clear what he wanted to happen on education and how important it was, and obviously the wheels turned here,'' said spokesman Ari Fleischer. Bush was campaigning in Kentucky.

Later, the committee unanimously approved the platform after two days of debate. ''This platform is putting the flesh on compassionate conservatism,'' said Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, the platform chairman, using Bush's slogan.

Some Republicans said platform language modeled on Bush's plan smacked of federal control of education. Unlike Bush, they want the U.S. Education Department shut.

Appealing to the center in his presidential campaign, Bush largely prevailed in a platform written with the heavy influence of the party's most conservative activists.

The right toughened language against gay rights and family planning counseling for teens while giving the document more of an anti-government tint than it had when platform leaders wrote a first version.

''It's a little more conservative than what we drafted,'' Thompson said. ''But our party is a conservative party.''

Social conservatives were appeased on abortion, their greatest concern, as the platform committee maintained the party's uncompromising position against abortion rights.

As well, delegates stood firm against an attempt to weaken or abandon GOP policy against gays in the military, despite complaints by some Republicans that the stance was ''gratuitous discrimination,'' as one put it.

The Bush campaign took a hands-off approach to the debate on abortion, an issue that still risks disunity at the convention opening Monday.

But the challenge on education set loose a flurry of activity as Bush operatives moved to retake command of a key issue defining the candidate's ''compassionate conservatism.''

''It's a cornerstone of Governor Bush's campaign,'' Fleischer said. ''We contacted delegates and let them know this is a vital issue to Governor Bush.''

In two key votes, the committee defeated a motion to close the Education Department and passed a motion to reinstate Bush's education principles as part of the platform.

''There are words in here that sound as if the federal government is going to control our every breath in education,'' said Cheryl Williams of Oklahoma, who wants Washington to make few if any decisions in that area.

Although Bush emphasizes state and local control of education, his plans call for a strong federal presence. He would use federal dollars to reward or penalize states according to how well their students perform on standardized tests.

Ultimately, the platform was reshaped to propose a ''progressively limited'' role. Fleischer said such a phrase was acceptable to Bush.

Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, platform co-chairman, led the effort to restore Bush's language. Bush was not proposing new federal programs, he said. ''These are principles of leadership.''

Frist said the party's previous call to abolish the Education Department confused voters because they took it to mean Republicans would ''abolish education.''

The platform opposes school-based clinics that provide referrals and counseling for contraception and abortion. Instead, it advocates spending more to teach young people it is best to avoid sex.

Some Republicans said contraceptive counseling is important to keep unwanted youth pregnancies and abortions down. They tried to stop it from being discouraged in the platform, but failed.

Bush's proposal for the United States to take the lead in cutting nuclear weapons ran into flak before winning the day.

Some delegates, among them Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said such a move could weaken the United States if not spell unilateral disarmament. But the committee voted to keep the proposal in the platform.

Committee members turned a cold shoulder, however, to what has become Bush's unofficial foreign policy slogan: ''A distinctly American internationalism.''

The committee voted to ditch that phrase as the title of the platform's defense section. To some, it sounded too much like the ''New World Order'' his father used to talk about as president, and they disapproved of the ''internationalism'' slant.

Abortion-rights Republicans kept a low profile a day after losing their fight to moderate the party's position on that issue.

But they were exploring the prospects of including a minority report in the platform to reflect their views, or bringing the issue to the floor of the convention for debate. Bush campaign leaders want to put the issue to rest for the convention.


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