WASHINGTON — THE issue of abortion rights proved this week to be a pipeline for Democrats to the young, the suburban, and the heretofore Republican. Democrats have finally found what political operatives call a ``wedge issue'' that cuts in their favor.
Both political parties learned some sharp lessons this week from the Democratic sweep at the polls, especially in statehouse races in New Jersey and Virginia.
For Democrats, the lesson is that an abortion-rights position can carve away decisive chunks of the best Republican growth market - the young. The issue is an especially powerful draw for young women, winning over many who often vote Republican.
The lesson for Republicans: The only more dangerous stance than a solidly anti-abortion position is backing away from one.
The impact of abortion on this week's races is not a clear-cut subject. But exit polls on election day and opinion research during the campaign suggests some patterns.
In New Jersey and Virginia, which both elected governors favoring abortion rights, interest in the issue was highest among young women. This group of voters is typically the least informed about candidates and is the last to make up its minds before voting, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. But in focus groups last August, Ms. Lake was stunned to find that young women were widely aware of the candidates' positions on abortion, if little else.
Young women preferred the abortion-rights New Jersey Democrat, James Florio, to his opponent by 40 percent. Mr. Florio won Tuesday by 24 percent.
In Virginia, exit polling in the Williamsburg area found that 60 percent of women under 35 years old named abortion as the most important issue in the governor's race. Among men over 35, only 20 percent named abortion.
The numbers are rough because the surveys samples of these groups were small, says College of William and Mary professor Ronald Rapoport, who conducted the poll. But the evidence supports a strong age divide in Tuesday's vote, he says. Youth went Democratic. ``Abortion may have made the difference,'' he says.
The suburbs also went Democratic. In Fairfax County, the affluent heart of northern Virginia's Washington, D.C., suburbs, Democrat L. Douglas Wilder won 56 percent of the votes. Statewide, he won barely over 50 percent.
``Abortion afforded Mr. Wilder two things,'' says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato: the support of suburban Republican women and an issue to keep his anti-abortion opponent on the defensive.
Wilder was able to paint Republican J. Marshall Coleman as an anti-abortion extremist while he staked out a more centrist position. He supported, for example, a requirement that minors need parental consent before obtaining an abortion.
``It shows that Republicans can't get pushed into an extreme position,'' says Wirthlin Group Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.
Where anti-abortion Republicans sought to moderate their views, however, the issue became integrity.
In New Jersey, abortion itself had minimal impact on the race, some political observers suggest, except that Republican candidate Jim Courter tried to present himself as pro-choice in campaign commercials. His opponent touted Mr. Courter's anti-abortion past, and credibility became the campaign issue. ``Courter's handling of the issue was absolutely critical,'' says Rutgers University political scientist Steve Salmore.
A similar pattern showed in the Virginia race for lieutenant governor. The Republican, Edwina Dalton, called herself pro-choice, but only in cases of rape or incest. Her opponent, Don Beyer, was little known and trailed in polls as late as last week. But he staked out an abortion-rights position in television commercials and skewered his opponent's anti-abortion views. He won comfortably.