GOP Sees Defections Over Abortion Issue


IN the 1980s, Republican presidents won elections by embracing the religious right and opposing abortions. In the 1990s, it is not that simple.

Pro-choice Republicans are taking a closer look at the issue. Abortion is nibbling away at their ties to the party.

* At a Democratic rally in Chicago, a suburban Republican ticks off his reasons for voting against George Bush: the economy, the environment, "and he's supporting the Republican platform on abortion."

* In Kentucky, Republican Susan Stokes is running for the US House as a pro-choice candidate. "The majority of women are determined to change this position in the Republican Party," says the well-regarded state legislator. But if they fail, she is not sure she will stick with the party. "I'm a one-day-at-a-time person," she says.

* Karen Decker of greater Kansas City, Mo., has already switched allegiances. "I realized that there was no place in the Republican Party for me," she says. The religious right is taking over. "I didn't leave my party. My party has left me," she says.

Even anti-abortion advocates notice a change.

"There has been a little bit of a shift," says Carol Scoville, president of Missouri Right to Life. "But I think it remains to be seen whether people vote ... for abortion. It's not been proven at the polls."

Although most Americans are not anti-abortion, opposing abortion traditionally has helped Republicans. That is because opponents of abortion have been single-issue voters; pro-choice voters have not. Several polls have shown anti-abortion candidates getting a seven-point edge in votes, says Ms. Scoville.

But recent Supreme Court limits on abortion may change that. Abortion supporters are focusing more on the issue, says Paul Kleppner, director of the Social Science Research Institute at Northern Illinois University. Opposing abortion may no longer be an electoral advantage.

One early sign comes from Illinois. Two years ago, anti-abortion activist Penny Pullen beat pro-choice candidate Rosemary Mulligan in a Republican state legislative primary. Her margin of victory: six votes. This year, in a rematch, Representative Pullen lost her seat to Ms. Mulligan by 1,200 votes.

It is probably not true that abortion made the only difference in that race. Pullen's district boundaries were redrawn. She faced the same anti-incumbent feeling and economic downturn that President Bush faces. It is doubtful that Mr. Bush would win if he severed his ties to the religious right. But abortion gives voters one more reason to vote against him.

If Republicans lose badly, they will have to take another look at their abortion stance, political observers say.

"I think abortion as symbolic politics has been disastrous," says Paul Weber, chairman of the political science department at the University of Louisville. "There's no room for compromise .... They [Republicans] have to reject that as a single issue."

Republicans faced the same dilemma exactly 100 years ago. Then, the issue was prohibition. The religious right of the 1890s was moving to make it a platform of the party. They had campaigned against parochial schools (the complete opposite of today's stance). But in 1896, William McKinley took the reins and broadened the party's appeal. He campaigned on social harmony and prosperity.

His victory was a turning point in American politics. The Republicans went on to win six of the next eight presidential elections. The Democrats became a squabbling minority and did not really recover until the election of Franklin Roosevelt.

Today's Republicans face a similar dilemma. By embracing the loyal but narrow electoral base of the religious right, the party may marginalize its appeal.

In retrospect, President McKinley had it easy. By 1893, the religious right was in disrepute. The depression of that period also discredited the incumbent Democrats. So McKinley had the luxury of a big electoral margin at the time that he turned his back on the religious right. Today's Republicans do not have it so easy.

The religious right has not lost its power at the polls. Even if it does, pollsters and voters may blame it on the gloomy economy rather than abortion.

Here in Missouri, this year's governor's race should be as clear an abortion referendum as any statewide contest in the nation. The Republican nominee, William Webster, is the attorney general of the Supreme Court's so-called Webster case. He successfully defended Missouri's right to limit abortions. His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mel Carnahan, is pro-choice.

NEVERTHELESS, both men have downplayed the abortion issue in their campaigns. Lt. Governor Carna-han prefers to blast Mr. Webster's record in a right-to-die case and a drawn-out St. Louis desegregation court battle. Webster attacks Carnahan for wanting to raise taxes.

"I have never run a commercial on abortion," Webster says. "I don't think most Missourians are single-issue voters. [But] it is going to be part of the political landscape until it is resolved one way or the other."

The religious right is so well organized that Republicans privately doubt that it will be ignored after 1992. One key, says an Illinois campaign official, is who will lead the party after 1992.

Whoever it is will have a real battle to keep the GOP from splitting up," says Professor Kleppner. "They'll have a real donnybrook over the next four years between uncompromising elements."

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