Candace Straight, president of the WISH List

Republican women from across the political map will be seen and heard at the party’s national convention next week. Some are being given primetime opportunity to address the delegates and others working their issues behind the scenes.

In sharp contrast to their cold-shoulder treatment at the 1992 and 1996 conventions, pro-choice women are finding some semblance of a welcome mat this year. They concede it’s unlikely the standard-bearers will change or even tame the anti-abortion language in the party’s platform, but they say some of the chill is out of the air.

Though abortion is certainly the most high-profile issue, Republican women will also be talking about education, health care and Social Security.

The Bush campaign has promised a convention different from previous ones, turning attention to these issues and staying away from attack politics. Bush is said to be amenable to changing some of the neo-conservative language the 1996 platform–which called for dismantling the Department of Education, for example–except for the plank calling for a constitutional amendment banning abortion.

Marian Miller, president, National Federation of Republican Women“I think there will be a great deal more focus on listening to women at this convention than perhaps there’s been in past years,” says Marian Miller, president of the National Federation of Republican Women and an Indiana delegate. The reason, she believes, is that “women are realizing that if they want to be heard they have to be willing to stand up and speak out.”

Among the women who will be front and center in the convention hall are anti-choice Elizabeth Dole, an early dropout in the race for the party’s presidential nod, and refuses-to-say Laura Bush, wife of the presumptive nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

When the four-day convention gets underway on July 31, the first night will be devoted to Bush’s proposals for improving education and expanding health care. Laura Bush is scheduled to address the delegates that night, and on Thursday, she will be honored for her commitment to children and literacy initiatives in Texas at a luncheon sponsored by the National Federation of Republican Women.

Mrs. Dole, whose luster has diminished since her bid for the nomination failed, is being given a spot on the convention agenda Tuesday night, along with Condoleezza Rice, a Russia expert who is Bush’s chief foreign policy adviser.

Not to be deterred by Dole’s and Bush’s stance and their own relative lack of prominence, Republican pro-choice women are determined to be visible and vocal too.

Susan Cullman, president of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition, and Karin Miranda Pipkin, national director of Planned Parenthood Republicans for Choice, say that despite the odds they face, they feel a stark difference this year from the earlier conventions, where they were shut out. Though Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, head of the platform committee, is strongly anti-choice, he “has made us feel welcome to the process,” Pipkin says.

They and other pro-choice leaders–including Ann E.W. Stone, head of the political action committee Republicans for Choice, and Candace Straight, a founder and president of the WISH List, which raises money for Republican pro-choice women candidates–will be among the early arrivals to focus their attention on the platform committee meetings this Thursday and Friday.

Straight, a New Jersey delegate is key to the effort this year, as she is one of the 107 delegates on the platform committee. Cullman says the committee has more than the dozen or so pro-choice delegates on the ’96 committee, but she won’t say how many.

The fact remains, however, Bush does not want to change the 1996 platform’s anti-abortion plank.

“Everything else is up for grabs,” Cullman says, including calls to eliminate the Education Department and the National Endowment for the Arts. “I think they’re going to soften the edges on a lot of these issues, and the only one that’s untouchable is this one,” she says.

Straight adds that the platform is important because it gives people a perception of the party as being either intolerant, by its rigid stand on abortion, or being inclusive, through its other positions. “George Bush is a very inclusive person, but if we don’t change the platform, it’s one little thing showing that we’re not inclusive.”

While acknowledging that she and the other pro-choice Republicans are still pushing a boulder uphill, Stone says: “We know the party would like to get rid of this issue. The only thing that keeps us optimistic is the people we’ve talked to on the platform committee and the good back-and-forth we’ve had with Gov. Thompson and other members of the platform committee.”

Abortion-rights supporters also point out that pro-choice Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington state, one of the convention’s co-chairs, will be a key presence.

Among the other women in leadership capacities is Patricia Harrison, co-chair of the Republican National Committee.

Education will be a prominent issue, as Bush has been touting the achievements Texas schools have made under his leadership. The National Federation of Republican Women will take up that mantle, promoting Bush’s call for a stronger public school system, local control, high performance standards and parental school choice, including vouchers and charter schools.

Miller says the federation does not take a position on issues like the ’96 platform’s call to eliminate the Education Department. But she says the differences among delegates should be aired on that as well as other issues.

“I believe we should have a lot of discussion and debate on the education issue and the abortion issue because those seem to be the two that are getting the attention of women today,” she says.

Debbie Mesce is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C. She previously worked for the Associated Press.