To win, GOP plays coy with abortion

Must Republican presidential candidates maintain the party's

The debate over abortion, long a deeply divisive matter in American politics, is turning a corner.

Gone are the days when major Republican presidential candidates feel serious pressure to make abortion a signature issue in their campaigns. Gone, too, are the days when top Republicans in Congress allow the abortion issue to crop up throughout the legislative agenda.

At heart, analysts say, today's Republican leaders want to win back the White House and strengthen their thin majority in Congress. And they have come to see the abortion issue as a symbol of the "intolerance" label the party is trying to shake.

Most Americans don't vote primarily on a candidate's position on abortion; and, the Republican Party is surmising, most GOP voters who oppose abortion will vote Republican even if a candidate doesn't highlight opposition to the procedure. "The news is that, for the first time since the rise of Ronald Reagan in the late '70s, the pro-lifers are on the defensive and losing ground with the Republican Party, and they know it," says David Garrow, a legal historian at Emory University in Atlanta.

Unlike in the Reagan years, Mr. Garrow continues, "the Republican Party is not going to nominate someone who has any particular interest in using abortion as an issue."

The recent flap over GOP candidate John McCain's abortion views demonstrates the anti-abortion movement's defensive stance. When Senator McCain of Arizona recently told the San Francisco Chronicle that he would not support a repeal of Roe v. Wade, even in the long term, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) reacted harshly.

McCain replied to the nation's largest anti-abortion organization with a letter stating his "unequivocal support" for overturning Roe. But all is not forgiven. David O'Steen, executive director of the NRLC, says McCain has still failed to retract many of the statements he has made about abortion, including some that indicated a nation without Roe would "force" women to seek unsafe and illegal means to terminate pregnancies.

Anti-abortion activists have followed up their criticism of McCain with warnings that he has hurt his position in New Hampshire.

But that may be wishful thinking. There is no indication that McCain's standing - he ranks second behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush in polls of New Hampshire GOP voters - has been hurt there. And he may survive unscathed: abortion is not a key issue for most New Hampshire Republicans.

The real test may come in South Carolina, another key early primary state for McCain, where the anti-abortion movement is much stronger.

On one level, the McCain flap shows that GOP presidential candidates who call themselves "pro-life" still need to follow a certain prescribed orthodoxy or face the movement's wrath. The lesson for McCain, says one congressional aide, was that he should have just stuck to his long-held statements. "I tell all members of Congress, look in the mirror, decide what your position is, and stay with it."

But on another level, what anti-abortion activists aren't doing is just as important. They're allowing Governor Bush - who has a much greater chance of getting the GOP nomination than does McCain - to make similar statements without so much as a slap on the wrist.

In June, Bush stated that he would not require a Supreme Court nominee to oppose abortion explicitly. He has said, like McCain, that the nation isn't ready to repeal Roe v. Wade.

When asked about Bush's comments, Mr. O'Steen defended the Texas governor. He said he was satisfied with Bush's comments on how he would select Supreme Court nominees - not through litmus tests, but by choosing people who share his conservative philosophy.

Ultimately, the issue of the Supreme Court nominees is where abortion matters most to both defenders and foes. With expected retirements, the next president is likely to select three new justices.

Only two more anti-abortion votes are needed to reverse key abortion rulings. Whether those reversals would ever actually take place is another question, but in seeking to agitate public opinion in the presidential race, abortion activists highlight the Supreme Court angle.

Perhaps what's most striking about the turn in the politics of abortion is that this shift could have happened much sooner. Fundamentally, public opinion on abortion hasn't shifted in decades. If retired Gen. Colin Powell - who explicitly favors abortion rights - had decided to run for the Republican nomination in 1996, party elders likely would have fallen in line behind him the way they have with Bush.

But regardless of the timing, some Republicans are happy it's happened. "The Republican Party is starting to deal with reality," says Ann Stone, head of Republicans for Choice. "They now understand that the politics of abortion since 1989 have been bad for the country."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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