Gov. Pete Wilson, the California Republican, didn't mince words at the GOP's Western States Republican Leadership Conference last weekend. He wants the Republican Party to put the abortion issue to rest once and for all.
Take out the divisive section of the Republican platform that calls for a "human-life amendment" to the Constitution, Governor Wilson urged, and put in its place a "personal responsibility plank."
Such a plank would "acknowledge our reverence for life, our belief that the traditional nuclear family is the best way to provide children with the love, moral values, and sense of duty that all children need to become responsible adults, and to acknowledge that a decline in abortions will require a change in our culture," Wilson said in his address. "It will require a responsible society to persuade individuals to choose, as a matter of individual conscience, behavior that will not produce unwanted pregnancies."
The Republican audience applauded.
The scene at this Western gathering of party faithful was extraordinary for its lack of controversy. Wilson has long been viewed as possible presidential material - except for his pro-abortion-rights stand. The conventional wisdom has held that Christian conservatives, the activist wing of the party that has a disproportionate influence in the GOP presidential nomination process, would probably squelch any attempt by Wilson to run.
BUT his reception here in Reno, Nev., opened an intriguing possibility. Christian conservative activists did not appear to be well-represented in the audience, and it's possible that people were "just being polite," since Wilson is governor of a neighboring state, says John Laxalt, son of former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt (R).
It's also possible that reaction to Wilson's proposal will come later. The GOP's anti-abortion plank has, after all, been sacrosanct for the past six presidential elections. Last year, in the week preceding the Republican convention in San Diego, delegates haggled for days over the statement as party moderates sought to remove it altogether in the name of party unity.
"Pro-life Republicans insist upon the sanctity of life and on the right of the unborn child to live, yet many if not all pro-choice Republicans are not pro-abortion," said Wilson, the only speaker here to discuss abortion. "They are appalled by the shocking [1.4] million abortions that occur in America each year, and they share with their pro-life Republican friends the desire to dramatically reduce that number.
"I'm one of them. And many Republicans who think of themselves as pro-life because of their moral rejection of abortion nonetheless reject the notion of government making intimately personal decisions for a mother-to-be.
"In short, there is so much that we agree upon, and yet we've been talking past each other for more than 20 years, engaging in a debate that has given aid and comfort to the Democratic Party while failing to prevent a single abortion. Friends, this is not smart. I respectfully propose that we put an end to this costly and unproductive debate."
Conservative activist Grover Norquist called Wilson's statement an attempt to stake out a "common-ground position." "His comments on the importance of trying to reduce the numbers of abortions are important," Mr. Norquist says.
The reason the audience applauded, he says, is that Wilson wasn't being insulting.
Norquist also suggests that being pro-choice doesn't preclude the two-term California governor from becoming the Republicans' next presidential nominee in the way it precludes New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R), who he says is "extreme" on the issue. She opposes a ban on late-term abortions.
Linda Barber, second vice-chair of the Arizona Republican Party, looked troubled when asked later about Wilson's comments. Frankly, she said, she wished he hadn't felt it necessary to bring up abortion at all. Mrs. Barber, who is pro-life, regrets the battles within the GOP over abortion and believes some silence on the issue will heal the wounds.
"There's a lot of passionate feeling about abortion in the West," says Barber. "Women had babies on the Oregon Trail, under tough conditions. And now they say, 'Oh, I don't feel like having a baby right now,' and just get rid of it."
But, she adds, abortion shouldn't be a litmus-test issue for Republicans. "It's just kind of there, rubbing us the wrong way," she says, holding her head in her hands.