Cover Story

Taking names

Although pro-life Republican rebels lost a battle in Palm Springs, insurgent Tim Lambert believes the vote over funding GOP liberals provides the background information and ammunition to win the war.

Issue: "Rebel with a cause," Jan. 30, 1998

There's a country-club feel to the lobby of the Renaissance Esmerelda Hotel in the California town of Indian Wells near Palm Springs. The place is a winter golfing draw, so bags of clubs are carried through by bellmen and guests. But golfers' shirts and cleats are outnumbered by the blue blazers of Republican Party national committee members, at least for this weekend. The party stalwarts have come to California to quash a rebellion.

Texan Tim Lambert moves through the lobby with the ease of an old political hand, matching smiles and waves and quick-grips of other committee members. He wears a gray suit and round-rim wire-frame glasses, fitting in perfectly well; but this homeschooling father of four (and president of the Texas Home School Coalition) is leading the rebellion.

He has brought a resolution to deny party funding to Republican candidates who refuse to support a ban on partial-birth abortion. RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson has marshalled every weapon available to defeat the resolution, which he says will shrink the hallowed Big Tent and leave pro-aborts such as New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman out in the cold. But Mr. Lambert's not afraid of a floor fight; in fact, he's not even afraid of losing the vote (though he privately expects to). The revolution he's leading won't happen in Indian Wells, he explains; this is just the first step in what he hopes will be a conservative retaking of the Republican Party.

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It's Friday morning, and Mr. Lambert is overtaken by a big man in a blue suit. Alec Poitevint, RNC treasurer and a committee member from Georgia, gives him a winning smile when Mr. Lambert presses him for a commitment on the upcoming vote. "I'm absolutely, absolutely opposed to partial-birth abortion," Mr. Poitevint says. "You can count on that."

Which means, of course, that Mr. Lambert should not count on his vote. Mr. Lambert watches him walk away. "If I hear, 'I'm against partial birth abortion, but ...' one more time," he says softly, "I'm going to throw up."

Mr. Lambert lost this time around, though it took lots of private arm-twisting by the Republican Leadership. But the primary objective never was to win this vote. RNC chairman Jim Nicholson, a Colorado native, need only have looked to the nearby state of Texas to see this. Five years ago, Mr. Lambert helped lead a similar conservative revolt within the ranks of the Republican Party of Texas.

"In 1993, cultural conservatives couldn't get a committee chairman elected," Mr. Lambert said in a rare quiet moment, slumping into a couch in a corner of the huge lobby.

"Lots of people say the right things, but we were learning that the truth is in the voting," he said. "So many of us [social conservatives] were ready to walk. We just weren't welcome."

So Mr. Lambert brought forth a resolution at the state convention to deny funding for candidates who don't support the party platform (example: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has a mixed record on abortion, but did support the override of President Clinton's partial-birth abortion veto). Conservatives lost the vote, but they identified the moderates. Then quietly, steadily over the next year, conservatives began running for the seats held by those moderates, and by the summer of 1994 they looked around to find they held a majority of about 60 percent. The fruit was borne when the state party chairmanship came open, and conservative Christian Tom Pauken beat out Joe Barton (the former congressman) for the seat.

"We won," Mr. Lambert explains of the Texas resolution's defeat. "It wasn't about who would win the floor vote. It was about control of the party."

His goal in California on this weekend was to identify RNC moderates, so that conservatives can challenge them before the primaries in the year 2000. He's out to prevent a repeat of the choosing of a candidate such as Bob Dole, who went out of his way to attack social conservatives such as Family Research Council head Gary Bauer. "These guys don't understand that lip service isn't enough," he says of the moderates on abortion now in control of the party. "Leadership isn't lip service, it's not position, it's action. There is such a thing as party discipline."

Phyllis Schlafly was one of Mr. Lambert's few dedicated allies in Palm Springs. She deftly parried questions from a CBS reporter during the break. "The fracture is already there," she answers. "The 'big mistake' is further alienating the grass roots of the Republican party. Whatever happens, this will not be a defeat for principles-we're making people stand and be counted. Abortion isn't the only issue in this resolution; there's also the issue of who's going to control the Republican party. There's the issue of the arrogance of the moderates."

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