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  •   Abortion Fades From GOP Limelight

    By Terry M. Neal and David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, April 14, 1999; Page A1

    For the first time in two decades, most of the leading Republican presidential candidates are pointedly trying to push an abortion ban off the top of the party's agenda, removing from the political spotlight one of the most divisive issues of a generation.

    In the past few weeks, prominent GOP candidates -- including Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former vice president Dan Quayle -- have said the party should focus on other issues because America is not ready for a ban on abortion.

    In contrast to 1996, when religious and social conservatives lashed out at Robert J. Dole's desire to tone down the party's platform on abortion, many antiabortion leaders appear willing to play down a polarizing issue that has driven away many independent and suburban voters and perpetuated the party's image of intolerance.

    Party polls have shown that many of these swing voters, holding conflicted views on abortion, perceived Republicans to be inflexible. By dropping the banner of a constitutional ban on abortion and emphasizing the far more limited ban on the late-term procedure opponents call "partial-birth" abortion, Republican strategists hope to paint a new picture in which Democrats -- with their absolute resistance to any limits -- are the inflexible ones.

    This turn to the center reflects the GOP's pragmatic approach -- after two presidential defeats and with their majority in the House hanging by a thread -- to the 2000 election. It does not mean GOP leaders plan to back off the abortion issue entirely, but rather that they are determined not to let it dominate the party's agenda.

    "I think a lot of people on my side -- the pro-life side -- have decided that making incremental progress is better than trying to throw the long bomb," former GOP chairman Haley S. Barbour said.

    Republican pollster Linda DiVall, who has signed on with Dole, said that in one of her recent surveys voters gave Democrats a 20-point edge over Republicans in tolerating other points of view. "I think there's a greater understanding of just how divisive this issue is," she said. "Also, there is a great desire among Republicans to win this campaign."

    Antiabortion activists stress that they've had an impact on the party, noting that there are no overtly pro-abortion rights GOP candidates in the 2000 race. In 1996, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and then-Gov. Pete Wilson of California ran as abortion rights Republicans, though both did poorly.

    The debate over abortion is loaded with nuances, but as the Republican candidates state their positions, they seem to agree that the party should concentrate on initiatives over which a public consensus is most possible: Outlawing late-term abortion, continuing the ban on government funding for abortion and requiring parental consent for abortions performed on minors.

    In a letter to a supporter made public by her campaign Friday, Dole stressed that she is "pro-life," but urged the party to accept people who disagree on the issue. Dole said the party should "concentrate instead on what we agree upon most" -- including late-term abortion, parental notification requirements and the ban on government funding.

    Dole wrote that she "would support the idea of a constitutional amendment, if it were possible. But of course, it's not. It's not going to happen because the American people do not support it."

    Such a position might have drawn howls of protest from leaders of the antiabortion movement just four years ago. But in interviews this week, several top activists expressed reluctance to criticize Dole, and some even said they agreed with her approach.

    Christian Coalition executive director Randy Tate said it was too early to make judgments about which candidate had the best position on abortion. But he explained that the political environment within the party has evolved in a way that makes such statements acceptable to many who oppose abortion. Tate said many leaders of the antiabortion movement have made a strategic decision to move the debate incrementally, making it acceptable to support candidates such as Dole and Bush. The end remains the same, he said, but the means have changed.

    "It was a strategic decision, made by many of us, that by taking these steps we've made more headway on changing hearts and minds in this country in the last six years as we did in the previous 20 years," Tate said. "Our approach has gotten us closer to a day when we have a constitutional amendment than the day when we refused to make some of these strategic decisions."

    David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, said: "Apparently from the letter [Dole] is taking the position that she herself would favor a constitutional amendment. She noted that there wasn't enough support for it. We don't disagree with that."

    Other candidates have made similar statements.

    Last month, Bush said "America is not ready" for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, while insisting that he opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the woman is in danger. Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson responded by defending Bush and insisting that Bush is "profoundly pro-life."

    McCain also opposes abortion but has said the Republican Party should restore language from the 1980 platform plank that recognized different views on the issue within the GOP. McCain has also said he could consider tapping a running mate who supported abortion rights.

    Even Quayle, who built his career on the GOP's conservative wing, is now promoting a pragmatic approach to the abortion issue. "It's a question of what you can achieve," he said last week in an interview. "You can pass a partial-birth abortion ban, and I would do that right away. And you can appoint judges who are committed to interpreting the law rather than making new laws" -- a Republican way of saying appoint conservative, antiabortion judges.

    "That's about it for what you can achieve," Quayle said.

    On one level, the shift in Republican rhetoric reflects a growing belief that, more than 25 years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, the practice is now too widespread to abolish overnight.

    One of the founders of the Christian conservative movement, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, said earlier this year that he no longer believes the government could successfully outlaw abortion. Until the American culture changes at the grass roots, he said, "if you were to outlaw abortion . . . you would create an enormous underground that would make Prohibition seem small by comparison."

    But not every candidate thinks avoiding the issue of banning abortion is the way to win. Gary Bauer, who ran the conservative Family Research Council before stepping down to explore a run for president, issued a news release Monday challenging Dole's "retreat" on abortion.

    Bauer said he believes the next president will have the power to ban abortion by "making the right court appointments and sending legislation that makes it clear that the unborn are persons under the 14th Amendment." He continued: "I think that increasingly in the party, political figures say they are pro-life and then the inevitable next word is 'but,' and every word after that explains that nothing can be done."

    Greg Mueller, a spokesman for Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, said Republican primary voters are looking for candidates who are activists on abortion. Forbes, he said, would immediately seek to ban fetal-tissue research, ban second- and third-trimester abortions, except when the life of the woman is in danger, and outlaw "partial-birth" abortion. In addition, Forbes would use "the bully pulpit" to promote a constitutional amendment banning abortion, Mueller said.

    Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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