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The Republican Party has undergone a transformation in the 20 years since Ronald Reagan's unique appeal simultaneously broadened the party's base and moved its center of gravity to the right.

Like the redesigned car in the well-known advertisement, this is not "your father's Oldsmobile."The shift will be especially visible at the GOP convention in San Diego. Beginning in 1976, when Reagan and his Sunbelt-bred movement conservatives nearly wrested the nomination from incumbent Republican President Gerald R. Ford in Kansas City, the convention has come to reflect the changes in the party's rank and file.

What was once a gathering of officeholders, party officials and other stalwarts - many of them from the more moderate, establishment wing of the GOP - has come to mirror the demographic variety of the party and nation, while embracing an ever more conservative outlook.

If the Republican attendees are not yet as diverse demographically as Democratic convention delegates, they are as likely to have an ear for country music as they are to have the air of the country club.

Along with this change has come a shift in the political themes and values. Conservative social values - including active, even virulent, opposition to abortion, gay rights and gun control - have risen to rival in importance the party's traditional economic themes such as lower taxes and less government regulation.

This process has actually intensified since the end of the Reagan era. In 1988, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's campaign brought hundreds of thousands of conservative Christian activists into the Republican presidential process. Their voices were audible at the convention in New Orleans.

The trend was even more evident at the 1992 convention in Houston, where conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan's primary challenge to President George Bush culminated with a strident convention address.

The Christian Coalition, spawned by the 1988 Robertson campaign, has had a profound effect on the emerging Republican majorities in Congress as well as on presidential politics.

That impact may be more palpable than ever at the San Diego convention. More than a third of the delegations in San Diego will feature strong, if not predominant, contingents of the Christian Coalition. A few will even have coalition officers as chairmen.

Dole comes to the convention with an overwhelming majority of the delegates committed to him. Yet an undercurrent of restiveness persists, often most evident in delegations from the nation's most decidedly Republican states.

To be sure, the dissatisfaction with Dole is caused in part by his weak midsummer standing in the polls. But even those GOP activists whose dislike of President Clinton convinces them Dole can win are sometimes less than entirely enthusiastic about the prospect of a Dole presidency.

Dole, after all, has distanced himself from the gun lobby and gone relatively easy on such emotional issues as immigration and affirmative action (particularly as it pertains to women). It is widely noted among activists that Dole does not speak of the "Contract With America."

President Reagan may not have accomplished much on the cultural side of his agenda. But his admirers forgave him because he spoke their language and seemed sincerely on their side. Dole, despite a consistent voting record against abortion, has never inspired a comparable degree of personal confidence among anti-abortion activists.

While there are reasons for movement conservatives to doubt Dole's credentials, there are also reasons for them to support him. And what may set the cultural conservatives of 1996 apart is their willingness to embrace a compromise candidate for the sake of defeating Clinton

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)