Abortion Litmus Test Eases for GOP Candidates

On his way to election as governor of Virginia, conservative Republican Jim Gilmore took an unusual detour: He said he supported a woman's right to choose abortion during the first "eight to 12 weeks of pregnancy."

Just as surprising, the state's powerful Christian conservatives did not abandon him, despite their bedrock belief that abortion at any time is murder. In fact, for the most part, social conservatives continued to play a key role in Mr. Gilmore's win, including financial contributions from Christian right leader Pat Robertson.

"We wish Gilmore had taken a stronger stand on abortion," says Randy Tate, the new executive director of the Virginia-based Christian Coalition. "But remember, he opposed 'partial-birth' abortion, he opposed funding for abortion, and he supports parental notification in abortion."

And compared with Democratic opponent Don Beyer, who strongly favors abortion rights, Gilmore was certainly closer to the Christian right's position.

But at root, Gilmore's blurred stand highlights an important new tactic among Republicans trying to appeal to a broad cross-section of their party: Focus on "sub-issues," not on the intractable debate of whether to outlaw abortion. Sub-issues include those outlined by Mr. Tate: late-term abortion, parental notification, state funding.

"Republican candidates are running smarter," says Mark Rozell, author of a book on Christian conservatives. "And the Christian right is maturing. They're learning how to work with candidates who aren't 100 percent on their issues."

Sub-issues prevail

In addition, Gilmore could "get away" with his position on abortion because the fundamental right to abortion is currently not a big issue with the public. Religious conservatives know that the Supreme Court isn't about to outlaw abortion and that Congress doesn't have the votes to pass a so-called human-life amendment to the Constitution. The real action is with the sub-issues.

Publisher Steve Forbes, who seems prepared to run again for president in 2000, has also changed his rhetoric on abortion in an apparent effort to woo Christian conservatives. While he avoided the issue in 1996, he now often states that life begins at conception and that the "right to life is not a state-endowed right, it is a Creator-endowed right."

But at the same time, Mr. Forbes also doesn't call for a human-life amendment or other wholesale bans on abortion. He focuses on sub-issues.

Role in Whitman election

And it is the inflammatory sub-issue - partial-birth abortion - that helped bring New Jersey's Republican governor, Christine Whitman, close to defeat on Tuesday. An outspoken supporter of abortion rights, she had vetoed a bill to ban partial-birth abortions and outraged social conservatives in her state. A small but significant percentage actively campaigned for Governor Whitman's defeat, preferring to see a Democrat (also pro-abortion-rights) win the race rather than her.

The fact that Whitman won anyway - and that 95 percent of the New Jersey electorate voted for an abortion-rights supporter - provides solid vindication of her position on abortion and proof that moderate Republicans can continue to win in the Northeast, says Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion Rights and Reproductive Action League.

The same holds for New York's just-reelected Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, a liberal on social issues, she adds.

Speaking on the Virginia race, Ms. Michelman says: "Gilmore understood that an extreme anti-abortion position would cost him votes." The religious right went along with his position, she adds, because they know he'll be in their corner when he's governor.

Christian conservatives are also satisfied by the Virginia elections because the new attorney general, Mark Earley, is one of their own and is touted as a candidate for governor in 2001. Mr. Earley represents the "model candidate for the Christian right," says Mr. Rozell.

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