Perhaps spending the day with rich, liberal Northern California Republicans, who cannot win elections but contribute lots of money, had its impact on Sen. John McCain. That is the only plausible explanation for his telling the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board last week that "certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade."

"It was a mistake, a terrible mistake," a McCain adviser told me, contradicting his presidential campaign's official line that the senator's opposition to abortion had not diminished (using the old saw that his remarks were taken "out of context"). McCain spent the weekend trying to straighten out his position and was still sculpting his language Tuesday, five days after his first remarks.

McCain's mistake was explained privately by supporters as common to Republican politicians who don't care much or know much about abortion. They try to please both grass-roots, pro-life activists and the well-heeled, pro-choice campaign contributors, in abundance last Thursday when McCain addressed San Francisco's Commonwealth Club. But it is a special problem for McCain. Waffling on abortion confirms his developing image as the most liberal Republican candidate, which may give him momentary pleasure as runner-up but deny him ultimate satisfaction as the nominee.

McCain's abortion problem was no mere slip in San Francisco. His staff knew he blundered and sought quick correction. Appearing Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition," he no longer mentioned "the long term" but still opposed getting rid of Roe v. Wade "immediately." That didn't work either. Later that day, he issued a written statement: "I have always believed in the importance of the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and as president I would work toward its repeal."

But in both Sunday's CNN interview and his written statement he repeated the canard that immediate repeal "would force thousands of young women to undergo dangerous and illegal operations." Actually, wiping out the Supreme Court's abortion position would only permit states to enact their own statutes.

Doug Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee told me he could see "no substantial difference" between the San Francisco McCain and abortion rights activist Kate Michelman (who promptly wrote off McCain's comments as "political posturing"). After much polishing by his staff, McCain sent a letter to the Right to Life Committee on Tuesday, affirming his desire to "overturn" Roe v. Wade, with not one word about "dangerous and illegal operations."

Nevertheless, that does not solve McCain's abortion problem. In his CNN interview he declared "we must go back to the party platform of 1980 and 1984." But every Republican abortion plank starting in 1980 called for an unspecified pro-life constitutional amendment. Why "go back" to 1980? That year's platform (but not the 1984 or subsequent versions) recognized "differing views on this question among Americans in general -- and in our own party."

That's the language that 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole tried to get in that year's platform, and confronted irreconcilable opposition from rank-and-file delegates. The last outcome Republicans should want next summer in Philadelphia is another word-parsing debate over abortion.

John McCain's thrashing about over abortion reflects the problems inherent in his candidacy. His support of campaign finance reform and tobacco taxes has made him the darling of liberal journalists and led the upper class, pro-choice Republicans who attend Commonwealth Club events to think he might be one of them.

It's hard to tell what McCain really is, based on this answer last Sunday when asked whether he would push for a constitutional amendment: "I would as long as we can move forward in a way that abortion is not something which is -- which would then as [sic] the same way with Roe v. Wade, repeal of Roe v. Wade. If we stop this dangerous operation then obviously I would."

How could former representative Vin Weber, long a stalwart against abortion, support someone that confused? I asked Weber, and he replied that he had discussed abortion with McCain before he signed on to his campaign, adding: "I'm convinced that he's a right-to-life candidate." If so, Weber should sit down with McCain to explain what creates aid and comfort for abortion advocates.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.