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  •   Conservatives Defend Bush on Abortion

    By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, March 20, 1999; Page A4

    Key leaders of the conservative establishment have begun an aggressive defense of George W. Bush's abortion stand in an effort to blunt attacks on the Texas governor's presidential campaign from the Republican Party's right wing.

    Just as such candidates as conservative activist Gary Bauer, publishing heir Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes and television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan are beginning to gear up to use abortion to slow the momentum behind Bush, such antiabortion luminaries as Christian Coalition chairman Pat Robertson and David N. O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, have stepped in to defend Bush's abortion position.

    "Governor Bush has a pro-life record and has taken a pro-life position," O'Steen said in a statement calling on other GOP candidates and abortion opponents to "refrain from attacking pro-life presidential candidates." Robertson, appearing on CNN's Larry King show, said he "totally" agrees with Bush's approach to abortion; that until the composition of the Supreme Court changes, "we might as well take the incremental approach."

    The abortion issue is a critical hurdle facing all the Republican presidential candidates. Among GOP activists who dominate caucuses in Iowa and other states and who play a large role in party primaries everywhere, opposition to abortion is much higher than it is among general election voters.

    As a result, those seeking the nomination must negotiate a minefield in which it is virtually mandatory to oppose abortion to win. However, in preparation for the general election campaign, many strategists say it is essential for the nominee to avoid taking rigid stands that could prove fatal with more centrist voters.

    A key stumbling block has been the question whether a candidate would demand that judicial appointees explicitly oppose abortion, a commitment many antiabortion groups want candidates to make.

    Bush has not made that commitment. His policy as governor, according to campaign aides, is to appoint "judges who share his philosophy that judges should interpret the law and not legislate from the bench."

    A statement released by Bush's exploratory committee said that his "consistent position on abortion is he is pro-life with the exception of rape, incest and the life of the mother." But the statement continued, the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion "will not be overturned until hearts are changed. Until then, we should focus on ways to reduce abortion."

    On another key issue whether the Republican Party's official platform position on abortion, which supports a human life amendment, should be retained the Bush statement was vague: "The Republican Party should maintain its pro-life tenor."

    While Bush and his supporters have been taking steps to moot the abortion issue, the early jockeying over abortion has revealed weaknesses in Elizabeth Dole's consideration of a presidential candidacy.

    In the crucial week after Dole announced formation of her exploratory committee, not only has she been unwilling or unprepared to spell out a position on this issue so crucial to GOP presidential politics, no one on her staff has been available to explain the factors guiding her thinking.

    As soon as Dole announced, requests for explanations of her stand on abortion and a host of other issues began to flood in from interest groups, potential supporters and the media. But Dole's chief strategist, Kieran Mahoney, was on vacation in Italy, and her communications director, Ari Fleischer, had not started work and could not speak for her nascent campaign.

    Yesterday, after repeated requests over the previous three days, Joyce Campbell, an aide to Dole, said: "We are not going to have any further information for you. ... The campaign declines any further comment" on abortion.

    The lack of preparation has worried some prospective supporters. "For someone who is supposed to be a perfectionist, this is just incredible," said a consultant who has been looking at Dole's campaign with an eye to trying to get on board.

    While Bush is seeking to insulate himself on abortion, his adversaries are unlikely to back away from attempting to use abortion as a wedge issue to weaken Bush's support among conservative Republicans.

    "Most pro-life Republicans will agree that 26 years [since the Roe decision] of so-called incrementalism have given us 30 million unborn children who will never experience the American dream," Bauer said in an interview. "I'm not troubled by what various groups do or don't say on the issue."

    Buchanan, appearing on the Fox Network, said in response to a question about Bush's abortion stand: "I think leadership requires you to stand up and say 'This is wrong, and our goal is to end abortion in the United States. Our immediate goal is to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will overturn Roe v. Wade."

    Focus on the Family president James Dobson, who may support Bauer's candidacy, said, "Bush claims to be pro-life, but so have other people who've gone before him and wound up showing no commitment to defend unborn children. ... Don't give us double talk. Tell us if you'll support pro-life judges. ... We don't know what he believes."

    Most of the GOP candidates have adopted hard-line stands on abortion. Buchanan, Bauer, Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) and Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) would explicitly demand that Supreme Court appointees oppose abortion.

    Former vice president Dan Quayle said his opposition to abortion is "rooted in conscience" and those he would pick for the Supreme Court "will share it." Forbes's nominees "would have to agree with [Forbes's] outlook," an aide said. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) "would certainly surround himself with people who share his values" in making appointments, according to a spokesman.

    A consultant close to the Bush operation said the campaign expects to be attacked. "We understand that guys stuck at 2 percent in tbe polls have to hurl a rock and try to hurt somebody." But this associate said with the Robertson and O'Steen statements, "that kind of attack is badly undercut. Bush can do a mail dropping in Iowa with those quotes, and then where do they go?"

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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