Not long ago, Arlen Specter peered out across a cavernous Des Moines convention center and delivered a stern call for moderate Republicanism. Scattered boos rolled back.
On Saturday, amid rare flowering plants in a botanical garden, Specter said he wants the party’s presidential nomination so he can save the GOP from an “intolerant right.”
From afar, the boos rolled in.
“I think he’s a fine gentleman and has a lot of good things to say, but I don’t think he’s going to be taken very seriously in Iowa,” said Brent Siegrist, Republican majority leader of the state House of Representatives. “I would dismiss him as a real serious candidate.”
The heart of the Pennsylvania senator’s campaign is an appeal to centrist Republicans, warning that the increasing power of religious conservatives threatens to drive the GOP out of the political mainstream and hand re-election to President Clinton.
“We need to keep religion out of politics,” said Specter, at a rally attended by about 100 people. “Millions of pro-choice Republicans will not be made second-class citizens.
“Neither this nation nor this party can afford a Republican candidate so captive to the demands of the intolerant right that we end up re-electing a president of the incompetent left.”
In Iowa, which holds the nation’s first test of presidential strength with precinct caucuses next February, he’ll make that case to a party which has drifted steadily to the right and where religious conservatives have gained effective control of the party machinery.
“They have considerable influence,” said Steve Roberts, a Des Moines lawyer and member of the Republican National Committee. “In state central committee elections, in state chair elections, in precinct caucuses, they play a major role.”
Steve Scheffler, a leading force in the state’s Christian Coalition, labeled Specter’s message “divisive.”
While religious conservatives are likely to migrate to more than one GOP candidate Scheffler is with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole - they are likely to be united in opposition to Specter.
One of Specter’s main issues is his support for abortion rights. He is pledging to lead the charge to delete the strict anti-abortion plank from the Republican platform.
Iowa Republican Chairman Brian Kennedy said that’s a settled issue in the state’s GOP circles.
“To the extent he’s playing off the abortion rights language, I really don’t believe the nomination fight and the caucus fight is going to turn on that issue,” Kennedy said.
Specter’s swing was part of a hectic day of presidential politics in Iowa. Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar made his first swing through the state on Saturday. Lamar Alexander planned a rally Saturday night.