Abortion fight may loom for Bush

Friday, June 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Analysts say high court case, political calendar threaten to elevate issue

WASHINGTON – Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush so far has deftly tiptoed through the minefield of abortion politics, avoiding the pitfalls that vexed the party's last nominee, Bob Dole.

While holding fast to his anti-abortion views, the Texas governor and his campaign have soothed the party's abortion-rights supporters with a willingness to listen to their concerns.

But the campaign's ability to keep the peace on the abortion front may be coming to an abrupt end, analysts say.

Anti-abortion and abortion-rights groups are maneuvering to bring the fight to Mr. Bush. And his power to keep the fractious topic off-stage may be hampered both by the political calendar and a new Supreme Court ruling that has infuriated anti-abortion forces.

"It's the purple elephant in the corner. At some point he's going to have to address it," said Democratic political consultant Dane Strother, who gives Mr. Bush high marks for dexterity in handling the issue to date.

With the Republican National Convention just four weeks away – and with it the quadrennial rite of crafting a party platform that codifies the GOP's fundamental beliefs – both camps are flexing their muscles.

Their demands are twofold: that Mr. Bush reflect their view in the selection of a running mate and include it in the shaping of the platform's abortion language.

"For the long run, the vice president is going to be very important. For the short run, the platform is a very important statement," said Ann Stone, head of Republicans for Choice.

While Mr. Bush opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the woman's life, he has refused to rule out selecting a running mate who supports abortion rights. That, along with his unwillingness to apply an abortion litmus test to any Supreme Court nominations, has caused some in the anti-abortion movement to question his resolve.

"If Bush doesn't stick with his pro-life image that he's created, he's in trouble," warned Colleen Parro, the Dallas-based director of the Republican National Coalition for Life.

A Supreme Court ruling Wednesday – striking down a Nebraska law that banned a late-term abortion procedure – could hardly have come at a worse time for Mr. Bush. Once again, it forced into the national consciousness an issue that his campaign has strived mightily to keep on the sidelines, and it handed his rival an opportunity.

Vice President Al Gore immediately seized on the court's 5-4 ruling, saying the "razor-thin" decision should put abortion-rights supporters on notice that legalized abortion hangs by a thread, as the next president is likely to nominate several justices.

Mr. Bush was publicly silent on the implications the election holds for the future direction of the Supreme Court – or for the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion. He expressed disappointment at the court's decision. And he vowed, if elected, to write a constitutional law banning a late-term abortion procedure that he denounced as "inhumane."

Abortion foes are clamoring for him to do more.

At a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday, they demanded that Mr. Bush name an anti-abortion running mate and that he stand fast against any bid to amend the party's 1996 platform plank on abortion. The plank called for a constitutional amendment banning abortion without exception and affirmed the "fundamental individual right to life" for the unborn child.

"We've got the hill, and we're going to defend it," Ms. Parro vowed.

Some anti-abortion voters are threatening to switch their allegiance to Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan – or stay at home on Election Day – if Mr. Bush defies them.

The governor "does not believe that the platform should be changed," said campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan.

Four years ago, Mr. Dole ran into a firestorm of criticism from religious conservatives when he sought to rewrite the abortion plank to include an expression of tolerance for those with dissenting views. His effort was defeated.

Angered by the Supreme Court's Nebraska ruling, anti-abortion activists vowed Thursday to redouble their efforts. The Republican Party's future hinges on it, conservative leader Phyllis Schlafly and others said.

"A party that has lost its heart will be like a body when the soul leaves. It will die," thundered two-time presidential candidate Alan Keyes, who has threatened to bolt the Republican Party if Mr. Bush selects a running mate who supports abortion rights.

Mr. Strother, the Democratic consultant, predicted that the Bush campaign would be able to quell any rebellion within the party.

The Supreme Court ruling has "a lot of emotions running on edge," he said.

"The aftershock will die down, and the far right will recognize [that] if they undo George Bush, they undo themselves."

And how would he counsel Mr. Bush to avoid crossing swords with the GOP anti-abortion faction while continuing outreach to centrists?

"He handles it all privately," Mr. Strother said. "He's got to tell them, 'You've got to give me the freedom publicly to go win this race, so I can go give you your three Supreme Court appointments.'"

Those in the abortion-rights camp say that Republicans will only win in November if they broaden their "big tent" to encompass those who share different beliefs.

"In the last two elections, we haven't won the White House. And there's a good reason," said Ms. Stone. "It's abortion, stupid," she said, paraphrasing from a recent polling study.

A leader in the effort to moderate the platform, Ms. Stone expressed some optimism that her forces may prevail. "If ... [Mr. Bush] allows the process to go forward fairly, we could actually come up with a platform that ... the party as a whole could live with," she said.

The platform committee's chairman, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, has tried to head off a floor fight. "It's just not going to be that the abortion issue is going to define the Republican Party," he said recently.