Abortion edges back toward center stage in election

Supreme Court's ruling reminds voters that the next president could tilt judicial balance on the divisive issue.

With a razor-thin decision on one of the most controversial issues of the times, the Supreme Court injected a new energy and uncertainty into the presidential campaign.

With its 5-to-4 decision striking down a Nebraska law that restricted a certain type of late-term abortion, the court catapulted the issue front and center for key political activists on both sides of the debate. It also made its own future makeup the stuff of impassioned new political pleas.

While activists comprise only a small portion of voters on either side of the political ledger, the strength of their respective grass-roots activism has the potential to make or break the presidential fortunes of both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

As a result, the abortion issue, which had dropped low in the polls behind education and healthcare in its salience to voters, will now play a more pivotal role in shaping the race, influencing everything from the choice of vice-presidential running mates to the tenor of the campaign.

A new poll has found that two-thirds of registered voters now say the type of Supreme Court appointments a candidate is expected to make will influence their decisions at the polls in November.

"It has reminded Americans that on one more level this is a very important election - namely, that we have a Supreme Court which is divided 5 to 4, and the next president will probably get to choose at least one new justice," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.

The calculus of the new dynamic is expected to benefit both candidates by energizing their bases. But the ultimate outcome could depend on which one is better able to define the issue as the campaign progresses.

"If Al Gore can make whether abortion will be safe, legal, and rare part of the campaign, he benefits," says Timothy Mooney, a pollster at Voter.com Web site. "If George Bush can make the issue about whether the court is out of step on the so-called partial-birth abortion issue, he benefits."

But Mr. Mooney and other analysts believe that right now, the court's ruling tipped the balance toward Gore. The recent poll on the court, which was done by Newsweek, found that 62 percent of those surveyed favored the appointment of judges that will uphold a woman's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.

A recent Voter.com poll also found that while Bush has 90 percent of the Republicans on his side, Gore has the support of only about 70 percent of the Democratic base. The court's ruling gives some of those unenthusiastic partisans a reason to vote, and puts Bush in the position of having to face head on an issue that he's been trying to downplay.

The Texas governor has been sending mixed signals on abortion. He has assured the anti-abortion forces that he's on their side, and won't change the wording of the Republican platform, which calls for banning abortion, even in the case of rape, incest, or saving the life of a mother.

It also calls for a litmus test of all Supreme Court appointees. While Bush has balked on the litmus-test pledge, he's praised Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most anti-abortion voices on the court, as his model justice.

At the same time, Bush has been publicly flirting with appointing a vice president who is an abortion-rights supporter, Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania - a state that has 23 key electoral votes. And the abortion plank has been left off the prominent "Issues Section" of the Republican National Committee's Web site. In fact, a search for the key word "abortion" on the site turns up "no returns."

Some analysts believe the dual strategy is one that Bush would do well to retain.

"It's going to be a very tight race," says analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Those 23 electoral votes [in Pennsylvania] are going to be very important, as are the votes of women in suburbs who want to believe that Bush is flexible and moderate."

But the antiabortion forces have made it clear they'll walk away from Bush if he appoints a running mate that doesn't share a commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion. And they're already energizing their forces.

"Our people are now doubling and tripling their efforts to raise this issue," says Carol Tobias of the National Right to Life Committee in Washington. "It's really energized them."

But Mr. Sabato argues Bush should risk losing those activists to gain abortion-rights Republicans and independents.

Hess, however, believes Bush will opt for a safe, antiabortion running mate. "What should be the rule of thumb in choosing a vice president is simply 'do no harm,' " he says. "After all, nobody votes for the vice president."

The abortion issue gives Gore a very different set of challenges. He must win the support of a key swing segment: suburban women, many of whom are leaning toward Bush. So he's trying to play up the issue of reproductive choice, weaving references to the court's tight decision into his "prosperity and progress" tour.

Just as anti-abortion activists are rallying to help Bush, abortion-rights forces are raising alarms and mobilizing for Gore.

"Our folks are agitated about this," says Gloria Totten of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "The challenge now is to get out the message and be sure the people understand how intensely this election will impact that court. This case was just too close for comfort."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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