Two weeks before the elections, abortion-rights advocates in Maryland find themselves victims of their own success.
Four antiabortion state senators went down to defeat in the September primaries, and Gov. William Donald Schaefer finally revealed his own position, delivering a strongly worded endorsement for abortion rights. Taken together, the perception became that the battle over abortion in Maryland is all but finished.
But the news may have been too good for abortion-rights advocates. By their own admission, there is complacency within ranks that had been only recently energized and financial contributions are lagging.
"It doesn't have the same intensity, because our people in part feel they don't have anything more to prove," said Steven Rivelis, chairman of the Choice Political Action Committee. "It's a difficult message to get across that when you win, it still isn't over."
Rivelis said yesterday that his PAC had raised only about one-fourth of its goal of $40,000 to give to candidates between the primary and the Nov. 6 general election.
"The people clearly gave a mandate in the primary, but it has to last through the general election or we're right back where we started," said Karyn Strickler, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
As a defining issue, abortion retains a hefty throw-weight as Maryland voters fill 188 seats in the General Assembly. In at least 15 Senate races and 23 House races, abortion is a key component. But even abortion-rights advocates concede that some of the movement's verve was drained away by their primary victories.
Against that backdrop, the fight over abortion has evolved largely into a contest at the margins. Although they appear assured of a majority of both houses, abortion-rights advocates say they must protect primary gains and pad their margins to ensure they won't have to compromise in legislative give-and-take next year.
"Avoiding concessions is foremost in our minds right now," Strickler said.
Having gained a net of two Senate seats in the primary, Strickler's group is hoping for one more switch in the general election. Maryland's abortion-rights league plans to donate about $5,000 to candidates, as well as provide volunteer workers, operate telephone banks and send out endorsement mailings.
In some cases, political gymnastics are the order of the day. With the acquiescence of the candidates, abortion-rights groups are working for their own team in one Baltimore County district, supporting two Republicans and two Democrats. They are supporting one abortion-rights legislator, Del. Donna Felling (D) in another Baltimore County district and asking that their money not be put in the combined ticket coffers with Felling's antiabortion running mates.
Antiabortion groups say they are counseling candidates to be more forthright about their stands in the fall campaigns, saying the primary was more a referendum on commitment than abortion.
"Abortion may have been central in some races because it indicated that people are getting more unhappy with politicians weaseling," said Michael Burns, chairman of the Maryland Right to Life Political Action Committee. As a consequence, Burns's PAC is advising candidates to explain their position and point out the inconsistencies of opponents.
"We didn't do that in the primary, and we should have," said Burns, whose group expects to give about $9,000 more to candidates this fall.
But some candidates believe that abortion is still the galvanizing issue. In District 15 of western and northern Montgomery County, a legislative ticket led by veteran tax and budget leaders is forgoing other issues to concentrate on its abortion-rights theme. The ticket is called the "Only Choice Team."
Abortion-rights organizations say they have a unique possibility of picking up two House of Delegates seats in the district, including one vacated by Del. Judith C. Toth (D). Democrats, who hold a slim plurality in voter registration, see a chance at the same time to defeat a Republican by using the abortion issue.
Sen. Laurence Levitan, chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, is heading a Democratic ticket that includes Del. Gene W. Counihan and candidates Rosemary Glynn and Sally McGarry. The ticket is targeting Republican Del. Jean W. Roesser for defeat.
Roesser concedes that her own House candidate slate, including Richard LaVay and Michael J. Baker, has different views on abortion. Although Roesser says she is 90 percent in favor of abortion rights, she voted against liberalizing rules for public funding of abortion and did not vote on bills aimed at preventing people from obstructing access to abortion clinics. "I abstained because I felt it was covered adequately in existing law," Roesser said in an interview.
Counihan, vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, called Roesser's abstention "a major-league duck," and abortion-rights advocates expressed skepticism about her sincerity.
"If they have a voting record, we don't care what their lips say," Rivelis said.
Roesser's record apparently cost her one endorsement from a weekly newspaper in the upcounty area that said it found serious inconsistency in her abortion position.
Still, Roesser questions why Levitan and Counihan, fiscal leaders in the General Assembly, are emphasizing the abortion issue. "Important as it is, we should be concentrating on fiscal issues and the environment," she said.
And in at least one other Senate race, abortion is on center stage. In Carroll County, northwest of Baltimore, Democrat Jeff Griffith and Republican Larry E. Haines are locked in a tight Senate campaign. Haines, a businessman who opposes abortion, defeated Sen. Sharon W. Hornberger, an abortion-rights supporter, in the high-visibility GOP primary.
Griffith, a county commissioner, emphasizes repeatedly that he could be the "32nd senator," implying that his vote for abortion rights would provide a two-thirds majority in the 47-member Senate to block a replay of this year's successful antiabortion filibuster.
"My election is the key to the whole pro-choice issue," Griffith said.