For Obama, Unexpected Support

Antiabortion Lawmakers' Backing May Help in Pa., Ind.

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) holds bowling shoes, his birthday present from Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), at a campaign rally in Steelton, Pa.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) holds bowling shoes, his birthday present from Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), at a campaign rally in Steelton, Pa. (By Jae C. Hong -- Associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008; Page A01

As strong and consistent abortion foes, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. and former congressman Timothy J. Roemer are anomalies in a Democratic Party that has overwhelmingly advocated abortion rights. Yet both are backing Sen. Barack Obama, whom one conservative blogger dubbed "the most pro-abortion candidate ever."

As firmly as Casey (Pa.) and Roemer (Ind.) have adhered to their opposition, Obama has never supported a single measure that would curtail access to abortion -- even under controversial circumstances. But Casey and Roemer have chosen to ignore Obama's legislative record, and are promoting the Democratic presidential candidate to their antiabortion allies as someone who could achieve a new consensus on the issue. "He has the unique skills to try to lower the temperature and foster a sense of common ground, and try to figure out ways that people can agree," Casey said, although the freshman senator added, "On this issue, it's particularly hard."

The endorsements send a powerful signal in two critical battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, which will hold its primary on April 22, and Indiana, which will vote on May 6. Both states have sizable segments of socially conservative Democrats who reject the party's orthodoxy on an issue they have long viewed as troubling and complex.

Casey's endorsement is particularly important because Obama's ability to reach these voters is even more in question in light of the controversy provoked by his description of small-town Pennsylvania voters as driven by bitterness over their economic situation and looking for ways "to explain their frustrations."

Campaigning in both upcoming primary states this weekend, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) seized on the comments to paint Obama as an elitist, out of touch with average Americans. But yesterday Casey said that the better his constituents get to know Obama, "the more they're going to understand his heart and his values, and I think he's going to win."

Obama did not mention abortion in his controversial remarks, made last week at a fundraiser in California, though he noted other divisive social issues. But last week in Indiana, he said that both sides of the abortion debate are guilty of hyperbole.

"The mistake pro-choice forces have sometimes made in the past, and this is a generalization . . . has been to not acknowledge the wrenching moral issues involved," he said. "And so the debate got so polarized that both sides tended to exaggerate the other side's positions. Most Americans, I think, recognize that what we want to do is avoid, or help people avoid, making this difficult choice. That nobody is pro-abortion -- abortions are never a good thing."

Asked last night at a nationally televised forum on religious and moral values if there can be "common ground" on abortion, Obama said that "people of good will can exist on both sides." With Casey watching from the audience at Messiah College outside Harrisburg, Pa., he added that while there will always be irreconcilable differences between opponents and supporters of abortion rights, "we can take some of the edge off the debate."

Obama is trying hard to make inroads into Clinton's support among women, and in at least one primary -- in New Hampshire -- her campaign successfully made an issue of his commitment to abortion.

A flier mailed out just before the primary targeted "present" votes Obama had cast in the Illinois legislature. Although he was acting at the behest of local abortion rights advocates, his advisers think that female voters backed off their candidate as a result, probably contributing to his narrow and surprising loss.

But Clinton has also sought to break from party policy, as she, too, made clear last night. She said that "I will continue to do what I can to reduce the number" of abortions, so whoever wins the nomination, Democrats are likely to try to defuse the issue in the general election. Clinton co-wrote, with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), a significant abortion-prevention bill in January 2005; Obama signed on early as a co-sponsor.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company