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The political conventions of 1992 and 2004 in Madison Square Garden are signposts for the direction in which each major party is headed.

The 1992 Democratic convention was a milepost of dissension -- one that persists to this day. Last summer's Republican conclave in New York City was a skin-deep showcase for The Big Tent.

In August, Republicans paraded a squad of pro-choice speakers on prime time. They didn't talk about abortion rights there, certainly, but their prominence beckoned to the undecided. In the VIP box sat Vice President Cheney's lesbian daughter, Mary, and her partner, Heather Poe.

Contrast these shallow bows to cross-culturalism to what happened to the party of inclusion a dozen years before in the same building. The forces of then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton barred Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey from making any address to the Democratic convention.

Casey was the most influential anti-abortion voice in the nation. He passed the country's most stringent abortion controls and won re-election by more than a million votes.

It was only after Casey had been put down publicly by the convention chairwoman, Texas Gov. Ann Richards, that he realized that the bond between pro-choice organizations and the Democratic hierarchy was as unbreakable as the weld between big business and Republicans.

Whatever one's views on abortion, it is undeniable now that the Republicans have handled their relationships with social-issue constituencies far more deftly than the Democrats have with theirs.

While the GOP platform strongly opposes gay marriage, the party has recognized a homosexual rights group called Log Cabin Republicans. Pro-choice Republicans, backed with Wall Street money, also have a voice even though most party leaders want to reverse Roe v. Wade.

There is no formalized pro-life constituency in the Democratic Party, and no Democratic group espousing traditional marriage has reared its head.

Voter views on abortion generally haven't changed much in the last two decades. The GOP deployed it as a wedge with Catholic Democrats, first with former President Ronald Reagan's support for a constitutional amendment overturning Roe v. Wade. In the late 1990s, Republicans upped the stakes by campaigning against a form of late-term abortion that opponents call "partial birth."

It is on this question that many voters have doubts. Polls show that most people identifying themselves as Catholics and Protestants view abortion rights the same way as most Americans -- as settled law.

However, when an ABC-Washington Post poll separated out Catholics and evangelicals who go to church weekly, narrow majorities of those two groups supported restrictions on abortion. Other polls show 70 percent of Americans opposed to partial birth terminations.

However, the ties between pro-choice groups and the Democrats are so profound there was no more willingness to bend on this issue this year than Republicans for rolling back Bush's tax cuts for the rich.

If abortion was a long-smoldering fire, gay marriage was this year's gasoline. On the Sunday before the election, Catholics and evangelicals -- quietly encouraged by the White House -- put 5 million pro-Bush slingers on windshields of cars parked outside churches.

Bush's Catholic vote increased from 47 percent in 2000 to 52 percent this time against mainline Catholic John F. Kerry.

Casey's futile gesture in 1992 mirrored another in 1989. Fifty Democratic members of the House petitioned the party to drop its pro-choice plank as "poor politics." The bid was rejected. Three of the signers turned Republican. Only 10 of the original 50 Democrats will be sworn in next year.