WASHINGTON — Republican Party activists are at it again, fighting over what the GOP platform should say about abortion. But, in the grand scheme of things, what does the renewed battle mean for Bob Dole's presidential chances in November?
The impact could be felt in several ways, say political analysts. First, the prospect of open warfare over abortion at the Republican convention in August could make Mr. Dole look weak as the leader of his party. In general, a messy convention hurts a nominee's chances, presidential scholar Norman Ornstein has observed.
But at the same time, by making a concession now to the abortion-rights wing of the party, Dole could be signaling that he does not intend to allow social conservatives to control what the GOP platform says - or to dominate the San Diego convention. The Dole campaign is keenly aware of its soft support among suburban women voters, who tend to be moderate, and Dole may be reaching out to them.
Platform language may seem like an obscure issue to the average voter, but symbolically it's important, say party activists. "We don't want to be tolerated; we want to be welcome in the party," says Laura Holmes of Republicans for Choice.
The latest flap erupted when Dole stated in a June 10 interview that he wanted so-called "tolerance language" on abortion inserted directly in the GOP platform's section on abortion - and not in the preamble, as his advisers had previously indicated. Conservative activists are furious. The platform currently calls for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion, and conservatives insist it be left as is. They warn that their followers may not work as hard for Dole if he dilutes the anti-abortion language.
Republicans who support abortion rights, however, cite exit polls showing that a majority of this year's GOP primary voters want that plank removed from the platform. They also point out that Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 with an abortion plank that contained tolerance language.
Last week, Dole seemed to have muted the abortion question by calling for "a declaration of tolerance for divergent points of view on issues such as abortion" to be included in the platform. Dole advisers said the statement would be included in the preamble and would not mention abortion specifically, but rather would apply to several issues about which Republicans disagree, such as affirmative action and term limits.
Conservative Republicans such as Pat Buchanan and Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed welcomed that solution. Moderate Republicans were cautiously optimistic at first, then cooled to the idea and began talking about their plans for challenging the plank at the convention.
Abortion-rights supporters in the Republican Party are elated that Dole wants to insert tolerance language directly into the abortion plank. Many prefer removing the plank altogether and leaving the platform silent on abortion, but they know conservatives would not stand for that. Mr. Buchanan, who ran unsuccessfully against Dole for the nomination, has threatened to walk out of the August convention if the abortion plank is changed.
By early this week, it was increasingly clear that Dole's June 6 statement was not going to settle the GOP's abortion debate. Several Republican groups supporting abortion rights held a press conference on the afternoon of June 10 to express their disappointment that the abortion plank itself was not being changed. They said the demonstration of party discord was a necessary evil, because it showed abortion-rights supporters in the party that their view would not be abandoned. Republican Govs. William Weld of Massachusetts and Pete Wilson of California had also stated over the weekend that they would still fight to change or remove the abortion plank.
Republicans on both sides of the abortion debate claim to represent the majority of their party. Each side cites polls to prove its position, showing only that poll results on abortion depend greatly on how questions are asked.