Pro-Choice Candidates Lose Ground With Low Voter Turnout


THE abortion-rights movement looks more and more like one of those talented young ballplayers: Everyone says he has a great future if someone could teach him to hit. Pro-choice forces felt that again this week in Pennsylvania. Although a pro-choice candidate won the Repubican gubernatorial nomination, several pro-choice challengers lost to incumbents.

In the GOP race for governor, winner Barbara Hafer saw a political unknown come from nowhere to grab 46 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary.

Apparently the abortion-rights voters stayed home while anti-abortion forces voted in droves in a low-turnout election.

``She should have tromped me,'' a cheerful Ms. Luksik conceded to a television reporter. ``She spent $400,000. She's been at this for a year. I spent $40,000 and I've been at this for two months.'' A day-care operator, she got into the race because she disagreed with Ms. Hafer's pro-choice stance.

Furthermore, challenges to anti-abortion candidates failed. Gov. Robert Casey handily won the Democratic nomination, despite attempts by political unknown Phil Berg to highlight the governor's anti-abortion stance. Similarly, Lt. Gov. Mark Singel easily defeated his pro-choice challenger, Ed Mezvinsky, in the Democratic primary. Both incumbents got more than 70 percent of the vote.

Pro-choice forces tried but failed to unseat State Rep. Stephen Freind (R), who led last year's successful legislative fight to restrict abortion in Pennsylvania. The state law is regarded as the most restrictive in the country. Only two other states - South Carolina and West Virginia - have managed so far to enact restrictions on abortions since the US Supreme Court's Webster decision last year threw the issue to the states.

The abortion issue is likely to play a role in many states this fall, including Oregon, which also held its primary May 15. Four-term US Sen. Mark Hatfield, who opposes abortion, coasted to the nomination, as did his pro-choice Democratic opponent, wealthy businessman Harry Lonsdale.

Turnout is the nitty-gritty of politics. And pro-choice supporters will have to master it if they want to gain the upper hand in Pennsylvania.

At a reception here primary night, Hafer conceded that her campaign needed to galvanize its troops.

Hafer's relatively narrow victory, along with a series of gaffes (including some irregularities in her campaign financing), puts her at a considerable disadvantage against Casey, political observers say. ``There have not been any great scandals in his administration,'' says Michael Margolis, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh. ``I can't imagine what issue Hafer brings on'' - besides abortion.

Some pollsters say a pro-choice stance could be political gold if campaigns mine it correctly.

``This issue is a bomb just waiting for someone to set it off,'' says Mike Hooper, a political science professor at Temple University. His survey of 1,150 Philadelphians two months ago showed that they preferred Casey by 44 percent to Hafer's 20 percent. But when told about each candidate's stand on abortion, voters shifted dramatically: only 40 percent for anti-abortion Casey, 33.5 percent for Hafer.

The good news for pro-choice forces is that potential supporters are twice as numerous and are better educated than anti-abortion counterparts, he says. The higher education level means they are more likely to vote.

The bad news for pro-choice supporters is that these voters have so far failed to inform themselves about the candidates' abortion stances.

This information gap may explain the puzzling series of wins and losses by both groups in recent months. Pro-choice forces did well in last year's New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial contests, where the candidates' positions on abortion were widely touted. But anti-abortion forces have scored several successes in smaller races where far less money was spent and where, perhaps, the abortion issue was not so widely covered.

From the July 3 Webster ruling through the end of 1989, according to a National Right To Life report, anti-abortion forces won six of the 10 special state legislative races in which abortion was a prominent issue. They also made gains in the state legislatures of New Jersey and Virginia. And of five special elections for the US Congress, they managed to turn over one pro-choice seat (held by the late Rep. Claude Pepper [D] of Florida) to anti-abortion candidate Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R).

Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, says she does not trust the group's numbers. But her group has not countered with its own tally, saying it did not want to be blocked into the opposition's agenda.

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