updated 8/25/2004 10:58:15 AM ET 2004-08-25T14:58:15

Republican leaders are pushing for a constitutional ban on gay marriage in the GOP platform, opening a new point of contention between social conservatives and outnumbered but vocal factions fighting to give the party’s statement of principles a more moderate tone.

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A draft of the platform, shown to delegates on the eve of hearings Wednesday, set up a noisy debate just days before the Republican National Convention, highlighting divisions over gay rights, abortion rights and President Bush’s restrictions on stem cell research.

If the marriage plank is approved as expected, it would mark the first time the GOP has gone on record in its platform as supporting an amendment against those unions. The 2000 platform settled for a more general statement supporting the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Over the next day or two, delegates will pore over platform language that hews closely to President Bush’s agenda, sings his achievements and jabs at his Democratic challenger John Kerry.

“We show a safer world and a more hopeful America on all fronts,” said Ginny Wolfe, speaking for the platform committee.

About half the nearly 100-page document 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.

But most attention will be paid to the uncompromising language against abortion and gay marriage, as well as to a plank supporting Bush’s restrictions on federal financing of stem cell research.

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, Vice President Dick Cheney made it clear 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.”

Cheney, whose daughter Mary is a lesbian, said: “People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.”

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 have proposed a much 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.”

The draft retains the party’s “big tent” language, patterned on words of the last platform, saying “we welcome into our ranks all who may hold differing positions” but not spelling out the issues.

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