Colorado Race Frames GOP Abortion Divide

Two women on either side of debate run for nomination

Maj-Lis Kemper, who is part Choctaw, is chairman of the Boulder County Republican Party. Seated in a local restaurant, she is considering her tea, her Danish pastry, and her party's "big tent" philosophy, which emphasizes inclusiveness. Says Ms. Kemper, "Maybe the reason they made a Choctaw chairwoman is that I know how to put up a tent."

But setting up a tent isn't Kemper's or the rest of the GOP leadership's challenge. Rather, it's getting everyone inside. Particularly on the issue of abortion.

Nowhere is this more true than in Colorado's Second Congressional District, which includes all or parts of five counties in and around the Rocky Mountains, but principally liberal Boulder County. Here, the national Republican divide over abortion is neatly framed by two women running for the nomination to oppose five-term Democrat incumbent David Skaggs.

On one side is Pat Miller, a former beauty-shop owner and state legislator, uncompromisingly anti-abortion, who was beaten by Rep. Skaggs in 1994. She says: "I support the right of human beings to be born. I learned in biology that life begins at conception. That's the bottom line and that's who I am. A society that kills human beings before they are born can't last long." Miller's position echoes that of presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and the GOP platform, which calls for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. Bob Dole has supported the ban except in cases of incest, rape, and when the mother's life is threatened.

On the other side is Shannon Robinson, who formerly owned her own law firm and stands firmly and irrevocably on both sides of the fence. "I don't make any bones about it. I am a practicing Catholic and as such, I'm personally opposed to abortion," Ms. Robinson says. "But I try to be consistent in my philosophical approach. That means less government is best.... We're talking about me as representative, not me as a person. I don't think government should be making the decision."

Robinson's position reflects that of a handful of Republican governors who want the abortion ban to be removed from the party platform or modified.

Typically what happens in the Second - and many other districts - is that Republicans beat up on each other in the primary over abortion, then the survivor loses in November to a pro-abortion-rights Democrat.

Candidate Robinson says such behavior has been "the perfect wedge" for Democrats and is "suicidal" for the GOP.

Yet, the past has provided no prologue for the rancorous Second District Republicans. By far the main issue at the recent Boulder County Republican Assembly was abortion, and attendees loudly adopted a traditional hard-core anti-abortion resolution calling for outlawing all abortions except when a woman's life is in danger.

Miller, who lost to pro-abortion-rights Skaggs two years ago (105,938 to 80,723), finds herself increasingly militant on the issue. Her view is that it is "much more difficult for women candidates to talk about abortion, I think partly because a woman has had an abortion, she regrets it, and feels threatened. It's easier to vote for a pro-life man, because of the perception that it's a woman issue."

But Miller says the divisiveness "has largely been caused by women. There are women who are so adamant on this issue that they will go to any length. They are single issue people and they wouldn't mind destroying the Republican Party over it."

Robinson is equally, if less stridently, alarmed. "Is abortion dividing the party in this district?" she asks. "Yes. So it may be a microcosm how abortion is dividing the party nationwide. Should it? No." Far better, she suggests, for Republicans to stop dividing and conquering over abortion and instead "focus on our shared beliefs, not on our differences."

Local Republican insiders do fret because a recent state GOP poll shows voters in the Second District, by a margin of 65 to 28, are pro abortion rights. So neither Miller nor Robinson apparently are in sync with the people. Therefore, it's no surprise that both candidates would prefer to talk about something else.

"A smart politician will try to keep the issue off the agenda but the activist minority keeps it on the agenda." says Walt Stone, a political science professor at the University of Colorado. Stone says abortion is doing to the Republicans exactly what race and Vietnam did in the past to the Democrats.

Republicans have to hope, says Stone, that the abortion plank will be "reframed in language less divisive and that party members who support abortion rights will vote Republican anyway."

Some Republican strategists say that a messy abortion debate going into the August convention will do nothing to help Mr. Dole win the November election. But many, such as Kemper, the Boulder County GOP chair, insist that "it's a wonderful issue for discussion. It permits people to assess their own opinions." Adding her own forthright opinion of those who choose a moderate stance on the issue: "The only thing in the middle of the road is a dotted yellow line and a dead skunk."

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