Republicans endorsed an uncompromising stand against gay marriage Wednesday while struggling to accommodate the views of activists who declared that such a hard line could cost the GOP the election.
A panel made up largely of conservative delegates approved platform language that calls for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and opposes legal recognition of any sort for gay civil unions.
That step came in the face of comments by Vice President Dick Cheney (search) a day earlier against amending the Constitution to prohibit gay marriage. Cheney, whose daughter Mary is a lesbian, said people should be free to have the relationships they want.
The debate over gay rights flared in advance of next week's Republican National Convention, just as the party was trying to show a unified face to the country.
The party's full platform committee was taking up the marriage plank late in the day and, in the meantime, seeking ways to appease Republicans who support gay rights or abortion rights without embracing their views.
Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist (search), platform committee chairman, said in an interview he expected the party to make it clearer in its statement of principles that it welcomes people who hold opposing positions.
But the party was not likely to go as far as activists want in adopting a "unity plank" that singles out gay rights and abortion rights as acceptable areas of disagreement, he said.
The panel also supported the call, carried over from previous platforms, for a constitutional ban on abortion. Another group of delegates endorsed President Bush's restrictions on stem cell research.
Gay rights has become the new point of contention between social conservatives and outnumbered but vocal factions that insist the party is being taken over by the right.
The 2000 platform settled for a more general statement supporting the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.
About half the nearly 100-page platform draft deals with national security and foreign policy, a foreign-vs.-domestic ratio also found in the Democratic platform approved last month in Boston, as both parties compete to demonstrate a tough stand against terrorism.
The platform, while not binding on Bush or any candidate, is a delicate dance for the party as it tries to stage a unified convention and satisfy conservative activists without alienating swing voters or more liberal Republicans.
The party is putting forward moderate figures in most of its prominent convention speaking slots next week. But behind those faces is a struggle over party principles that Republicans who favor abortion rights and gay rights are hard-pressed to win.
Senate Republicans last month had to set aside their proposed marriage amendment for lack of support but the platform draft makes clear the issue is not going away.
"We strongly support President Bush's call for a constitutional amendment that fully protects marriage," it says.
Campaigning in Iowa on Tuesday, Cheney indicated he does not favor the amendment supported by his boss, saying existing federal and state laws "may be sufficient to resolve this issue." But he deferred to Bush in saying "the president makes policy for the administration."
On abortion, the proposed platform again calls for a constitutional ban, asserting "the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed."
Republicans who back gay rights and abortion rights had little chance of shaping those planks more to their liking. But they hoped, at least, to have the party offer a strong statement declaring its openness to opposing views on those subjects.
The gay-rights group Log Cabin Republicans, abortion-rights group Republicans for Choice and the Republican Youth Majority proposed the more expansive "unity" plank that promised to be a hard sell in the hearings.
The platform draft, "refusing to unite our party and refusing to recognize that people of good faith can disagree over contentious social issues, sends the wrong message to fair-minded voters," said Patrick Guerriero, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans.
Ann Stone, national chair of Republicans for Choice, said: "It was their chance to show George Bush as a uniter not a divider, but clearly they have failed."
Eli Allagoa, managing director of Republican Youth Majority, said, "We have not asked anyone to compromise their values or change their positions. We have simply asked that our platform reflect the same diversity of opinion as our lineup of prime-time speakers."
The language the groups want in the platform reads: "We recognize and respect that Republicans of good faith may not agree with all the planks in the party's platform. This is particularly the case with regard to those planks dealing with abortion, family planning, and gay and lesbian issues. The Republican Party welcomes all people on all sides of these complex issues and encourages their active participation as we work together on those issues upon which we agree."