GEORGIA'S Sen. Sam Nunn, who is running for reelection in November and who has been often mentioned as a potential Democratic presidential candidate, announced a shift in his position on abortion this week. Are these facts related? The senator's staff denies the very idea, pointing out that Sen. Nunn is running unopposed for reelection to his Senate seat and that he "has no plans at this time to seek the presidency." Our view is that whatever the causes may be, we think it is a change in the right direction.

Sen. Nunn, in a letter to constituents, has now taken a negative view of what antiabortion legislation could accomplish. Although he had earlier supported a constitutional amendment that would have overturned Roe v. Wade and says he continues to believe the decision was wrong in terms of constitutional law, he now argues that criminalizing conduct that has been legal for 17 years would be unacceptable to the public and undermine respect for the law. He also states that criminal statutes, other than those protecting a viable infant, would be unenforceable.

Since the Supreme Court opened the door a crack to state regulation of abortion last year, a number of officeholders, particularly those who opposed abortion but had been protected by the courts from having to vote on the issue, have been going through the same soul-searching -- or political reassessment -- as Sen. Nunn. Many have come face to face with the reality of the new possibilities for legislation and realize that taking the country back to 1973 would be more easily said than done.

November's elections will provide some interesting tests of voter sentiment on the issue. In Iowa, abortion is a prime issue in both the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races. In Pennsylvania and Idaho, where strong antiabortion laws were passed (Idaho's law was vetoed by the governor), abortion-rights groups have targeted enough contests to turn the legislatures around. And in Maryland, the issue is of critical importance in a number of primary races next week.

Sen. Nunn's decision is noteworthy because of his national prominence and his status as a possible contender for higher office. But his political dilemma is far from unique. Reconciling personal convictions with beliefs about what kinds of conduct a government should compel or criminalize is not easy. It is a responsibility, though, that candidates from Boise to Bethesda will no longer be able to avoid.