The politically potent Iowa antiabortion movement today accused Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and his family of using "devious campaign tactics" to "conceal and distort his past antilife voting record."
During a raucous meeting of antiabortion leaders from across the state, Kennedy, his family and his campaign staff were accused of using the senator's ties to the Catholic church to cloud over his voting record on a series of abortion measures.
In a resolution that passed with only one opposing vote, the Iowa Pro-Life Political Action Council urged "prolife Democrats to withdraw their support from someone who so adamantly opposes our views."
The group also declared unacceptable Kennedy's rivals for the Democratic nomination, President Carter and California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. But many of the 35 antiabortion leaders at the session interpreted the action as a tacit endorsement of Carter.
"I think we're down to choosing between the lesser of three evils," said MaryAnn Worrell, a spokesman. "And Carter is the lesser of two evils."
"Jimmy Carter hasn't done us any favors, but if Teddy Kennedy is elected president he will set the prolife movement back 10 years," said another spokesman.
The group endorsed former California governor Ronald Reagan in the Iowa Republican precinct caucuses to be held Jan. 21. It also commended but did not endorse Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) for their support of a prolife constitutional amendment and for consistently voting against federal funding for abortions.
Roger Mall, an antiabortion leader from Davenport, argued successfully that it was necessary for the antiabortionists to rally behind Reagan. "If we don't support one candidate, we may end up splitting our vote and someone else may sneak up the middle," he said.
The council is considered one of this state's most powerful single-issue groups and has been credited with a decisive role in the defeat of liberal senator Dick Clar, a Democrat, in the 1978 general election.
Members of the 40 chapters it claims around the state have picketed Kennedy and his family at almost every campaign stop.
Republican hopefuls Dole, Reagan and Crane lobbied strenuously for the groups's support. And supporters of former Texas governor John Connally made a last-ditch effort Friday to court the favor of the council's chairman Carolyn Thompson. Thompson, however, regards the Connally effort as insincere.
The Democratic presidential contest posed a dilemma for the antiabortion group. Simply put, the group distrusts and dislikes Carter, but hates Kennedy.
Many in the group feel Carter was misleading during his 1976 campaign in Iowa when he said at one point that he might support a constitutional amendment banning abortions under certain conditions. They are also angry at him for firing former health, education and welfare secretary Joseph Califano, who supported their positions, and for naming Sarah Weddington as his chief liaison with women's groups. Weddington argued a key pro-abortion case before the Supreme Court as a private attorney.
The group, however, holds a special animosity for Kennedy. Many of its members are Catholics who also are angry at the Massachusetts senator for not supporting tax credits on private and parochial school tuition.
"He comes into Iowa flashing his Democratic label, his Irish smile and his catholicism and he expects to get the prolife vote," declared council to chairman Robert Dopf. "But this man has a total proabortion voting record in the Senate."
There was no immediate comment for the Kennedy campaign here.