WASHINGTON — North Carolina's Sen. Richard Burr is playing a central role in defining what today's Republican Party stands for.
That could prove to be a more important challenge than usual for the co-chair of the GOP's convention platform committee. The party's most devoted conservatives and their more moderate leader, John McCain, are at odds on some key issues, including immigration, global warming, stem cell research and a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
It's up to Burr to unify everyone behind one set of values going into the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in early September.
It will be an interesting and potentially delicate balancing act for Burr, who's a close friend McCain.
Already, he's finding that some bristle at any softening of the GOP's tough stands, even among fellow North Carolinians on the committee.
Mary Summa of Charlotte said she'll fight any platform that is merely "rubberstamp" of McCain's presidential platform. Summa, a former aide to the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., believes the platform must reflect hard lines on immigration, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research.
"If the platform supports embryonic stem cell research, I'll do everything I can to get it out," Summa said of the controversial medical initiative that McCain and Burr have supported. (McCain said last month that he's open to re-examining his position.)
Burr said the platform would only be drastically changed from previous conventions if a compelling case could be made that the party majority had redefined its position on a particular issue, and he doesn't think that's the case with studying embryonic stem cells.
"I don't want to prejudge the content of the product, but I would probably anticipate little to no change in the party's position," he said.
"This is not Senator McCain's platform, it will be the party platform," Burr said. "Will the party have differences from the campaign? Maybe."
It appears likely, despite the time McCain has spent appeasing his party. He wasn't a quick consensus candidate during the primaries because a number of his views varied from those of his party's base.
He voted against a constitutional ban on gay marriage because he wanted states to be able to decide the issue; he thinks man has contributed to global warming, a verdict some in his party don't embrace; and he sided more closely with business leaders who rely on an immigrant workforce at the expense of alienating folks who support mass deportation of illegal immigrants.
"It's kind of like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle when you know the pieces aren't going to fit," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, Tampa, who thinks the GOP has great incentive to avoid any major platform brawls.
"Electability is kind of where it's at. Republicans feel like they have an uphill battle anyway, that it's not going to be helpful if there's a lot of friction and that becomes the centerpiece of the convention coverage."
Burr downplayed any potential rift between McCain and party activists.
"The areas that historically are most contentious in platforms are areas where there aren't an ounce of difference between Senator McCain's position and the Republican position," Burr said, a reference to abortion and other social issues.
The party soon plans to unveil details about how ordinary folks can be sure their views are reflected in the platform, he said.
"We're going to do it in potentially a much different fashion than has been done historically," Burr said. "We are making every attempt to reach out to anyone in America who's interested in giving us input into what the platform says."