The reporters waiting for neophyte presidential front-runner George W. Bush to slip got their wish Monday in New Castle, N.H. But it was only a little slip, so small that even blunder-hungry journalists hardly noticed.

In his first news conference as an open candidate, the Texas governor was asked twice whether he would impose an antiabortion "litmus test" in selecting Supreme Court justices. On the second try, he said: "There will be no litmus tests, except for whether or not the judges strictly interpret the Constitution." The answer was precisely crafted by Bush advisers -- with one glitch: He used the words "litmus test," a pejorative employed by Democrats and the news media.

To repeat inflammatory phrases posed by an inquiring reporter is a common political mistake made even by so seasoned a campaigner as Harry Truman in 1948, when he adopted a newsman's language in calling the Alger Hiss spy case a "red herring." On his opening tour, rookie Bush avoided real bloopers. Except for repeating the "litmus test" label, his formulation on abortion kept to his overall plan.

Haley Barbour, during four years as Republican national chairman, argued that abortion should "not be the threshold" of the GOP and has given Bush similar advice as a member of his presidential exploratory committee. Ralph Reed, during his tenure as Christian Coalition executive director and now as a Bush adviser, has maintained that candidates should not be seen as either retreating on abortion or pushing the issue to the fore.

Jeffrey Bell, Gary Bauer's presidential campaign strategist and a longtime pro-life stalwart, contends Bush and the Republican establishment are trying to make abortion "a very marginal issue." That the issue was hardly marginal in New Hampshire can be traced to Bauer's challenge four days earlier in Council Bluffs, Iowa, that Bush "commit himself to only appointing pro-life justices to the Supreme Court."

In truth, no GOP presidential candidate has made the commitment demanded by Bauer. President George Bush's unfortunate Supreme Court nominee David Souter made no commitment about abortion. But neither did Bush's conservative choice, Clarence Thomas. To win a pre-confirmation pledge from a prospective Supreme Court justice is not only unseemly but also politically suicidal.

Gov. Bush had this in mind when he answered the first question in New Hampshire about judicial appointments: "My criterion is the same criterion I applied in Texas, which is judicial temperament, will the judges share my overall philosophy and will the judges strictly interpret the Constitution as opposed to using the bench to legislate."

What's more, Bush's advisers say that formula does not conflict with the language of Republican national platforms starting in 1984 and continuing largely unchanged through 1996, when the document pledged: "We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life." Bush campaign manager Karl Rove told me his candidate wants "judges that share his philosophy, and this [the '96 platform language] is his philosophy."

Bush is not drifting into abortion apostasy, which would be unwise in view of the May Gallup poll showing that people who consider themselves pro-choice are no longer in the majority. The National Right-to-Life Committee was pleased by the governor's videotaped summary of his views he prepared for that organization. Texas foes of abortion credit Bush with passing the parental notification bill this spring. But his no-litmus-test pronouncement, coupled with lack of enthusiasm for a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion, showed he will lead no quixotic charge for abolition now.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.