By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
The narrative of the presidential campaign appeared to be set on the issue of abortion: Sen. Barack Obama was the abortion-rights candidate who was reaching out to foes, seeking common ground and making inroads. Sen. John McCain was the abortion opponent whose reticence about faith and whose battles on campaign finance laws drew suspect glances from would-be supporters.
But both those impressions have been altered since the Rev. Rick Warren's Saddleback Civil Forum in California on Saturday.
Obama's hesitant statement at the forum that defining the beginning of life is "above my pay grade" took even some supporters by surprise. Since then, the National Right to Life Committee has challenged him on an obscure law that protects babies born alive after failed abortions, saying that his opposition to the measure in the Illinois state legislature proves he is an extremist.
McCain's performance at the forum seemed to hearten many conservatives, not only because of his firm, uncompromising stand against abortion but his broader appeals on global warming, genocide and the embrace of causes greater than self. But the clarity that McCain exhibited at Saddleback has been somewhat diminished with his suggestion that his running mate might favor abortion rights.
"Since Saturday night, I've seen a lot of confusion in the younger Christian voting bloc because they thought they had figured this thing out," said Cameron Strang, editor of Relevant magazine, which is aimed at a new generation of evangelicals. "There's no absolutely right candidate for an evangelical, and there's no absolutely wrong candidate. They're both right, and they're both wrong."
On paper, this campaign looks fairly standard. Obama, an Illinois Democrat, is staunchly in favor of abortion rights, while McCain, an Arizona Republican, has compiled a solid record over four Senate terms of opposing abortion.
But McCain has repeatedly been at odds with the National Right to Life Committee and other antiabortion groups over his efforts to limit their ability to run pointed "issue advocacy" advertisements in the closing weeks of campaigns. Although his voting record is strictly antiabortion, he has never made religiosity or social issues centerpieces of his political persona. And his 2000 labeling of evangelists Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance" deepened evangelical suspicions.
"To be perceived as authentic on this issue, you need to have some grounding in it, and usually that grounding is faith," said Douglas W. Kmiec, a Pepperdine University professor of constitutional law who opposes abortion but supports Obama.
As McCain moves toward naming a running mate, he has not backed off a suggestion to the conservative Weekly Standard that his pick could favor abortion rights. Speculation on whom that could be has centered on former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge and independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.
Similarly, Obama has made a show of reaching out to abortion opponents to find common ground on pregnancy prevention and adoption. He has urged evangelicals and Catholics to expand the definition of "pro-life" to include opposing torture, poverty and unnecessary war. In the Democratic primary, Obama was criticized by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign and others for being insufficiently committed to abortion rights because he did not cast some votes on the issue in the Illinois legislature.
Abortion foes are now accusing Obama of being an abortion-rights extremist. In recent days, the National Right to Life Committee has charged that Obama is misrepresenting his record to broaden his appeal. At issue is a measure in both Illinois and Congress called the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which defines as a protected human any life expelled from a mother. Abortion foes championed the cause when an Illinois nurse and antiabortion activist said some pre-viable fetuses were being aborted by inducing labor and then being allowed to die.
Obama, then a state senator, opposed the measure in 2001, saying it crossed the line of constitutionality and "essentially says that a doctor is required to provide treatment to a pre-viable child, or fetus."
As a committee chairman in the state Senate in 2003, Obama supported GOP efforts to add language to the act, copied from federal legislation, clarifying that it would have no legal impact on the availability of abortions. Obama then opposed the bill's final passage. Since then, he has said he would have backed the bill as it was written and approved almost unanimously the year before.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, charged that Obama is trying to have it both ways because the Illinois bill he opposed was virtually identical to the federal law he said he would support.
Obama aides acknowledged yesterday that the wording of the state and federal bills was virtually identical. But, they added, the impact of a state law is different, because detailed abortion procedures and regulations are governed by states. Johnson and others are oversimplifying the situation, aides said.
"They have not been telling the truth," Obama told the Christian Broadcasting Network in response to a question on the matter. "And I hate to say that people are lying, but here's a situation where folks are lying."
At Saddleback, McCain won plaudits from conservatives when he said that life begins "at the moment of conception," especially after Obama deflected the question.
But the inroads McCain made are now threatened by his flirtation with a running mate who supports abortion rights.
"I think that the pro-life position is one of the important aspects or fundamentals of the Republican Party. And I also feel that -- and I'm not trying to equivocate here -- that Americans want us to work together," McCain told the Weekly Standard.
Conservative commentator David Limbaugh slammed the idea yesterday, warning that McCain "would make a fatal mistake to assume that social issues, especially abortion, are ever off an equally blazing front burner for an inestimable number of social conservatives."
Abortion remains an important issue to a large portion of the electorate, but it is not the biggest. An early August poll for Time magazine found that one in five likely voters would not consider voting for a candidate who did not share their views on abortion. Twenty-six percent of Republicans saw the issue as decisive, compared with 18 percent of Democrats.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.