An aide to Vice President Gore said he misspoke when he claimed his boss opposed federal funding for abortion, but the latest campaign glitch provided an opening for Democratic rival Bill Bradley to question Gore's commitment to reproductive rights.
In Sunday's Des Moines Register, Gore spokesman Roger Salazar said the vice president believes federal money should not be spent on abortions except to protect the life of the mother. "Government should not be involved in those decisions," Salazar said. "The decision to have an abortion is between a woman, her conscience, her doctor and her God."
Yesterday, Salazar said he made a mistake: "I thought I knew the answer to that question; I did not." He said that Gore "opposes any attempt to restrict Medicaid funding for abortion."
Gore again came under familiar criticism that he has wavered during his political career on the contentious issue; and the mixed message out of his headquarters produced an unlikely alliance between Bradley and antiabortion leaders.
"It took the vice president's staff four days to research his record," Bradley said in a statement. "That would not be necessary with me because my record on reproductive rights for women is quite clear."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said: "Salazar made a perfectly understandable mistake. He probably came across one of Mr. Gore's many letters opposing federal funding for abortion."
In Congress, Gore voted against using federal money for abortion, but aides and supporters say his position evolved during his tenure in the Senate. "In the politics of 1988 and '92 and ultimately the Republican takeover of Congress, the threat to a woman's right to choose became more serious," said deputy campaign chairman Marla Romash, explaining Gore's switch on Medicaid funding. Currently, Medicaid covers abortions for women who are the victims of rape or incest or if their life is in danger.
Yesterday, Bradley seized the opportunity to subtly remind people of Gore's shift. "I have always believed a woman should have the right to choose, whether she is rich or poor, and my record has been consistent on this issue for 20 years," the former New Jersey senator said.
Even yesterday, it took Gore's strategists several attempts to state his position directly.
Salazar, reading a prepared statement, said: "He fought for victims of rape and incest to have access to abortion as well as those whose life is endangered. . . . If Congress were to pass a bill to expand Medicaid funding for abortion, as president he would sign it."
Asked why Gore would wait for legislation rather than draft it himself, Salazar replied: "That is the language that I have."
Romash and media adviser Bill Knapp later expanded on the statement. "The vice president supports Medicaid funding for abortions, period," said Knapp, who has led the team researching Gore's record. Knapp said there is no substantive difference between Gore and Bradley on abortion.
Gore himself addressed the issue at a campaign stop in Iowa, but without giving any details. "I support federal funding, if that's what you're asking," he said in response to a question shouted by a reporter.
With five months before the first voting in Iowa, this week's dust-up over abortion may not merit much voter attention. But it caused a ripple in Gore headquarters and among female activists.
Several women on Gore's staff, including deputy campaign manager Stacie Spector, complained to Salazar about the error, campaign sources said. White House counselor Ann Lewis, a former vice president at Planned Parenthood, also spoke to the Gore team.
Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said she is confident Gore supports full access to abortion. But she was disappointed Gore's aides took so long to articulate his stance.
At the National Organization for Women, executive vice president Kim Gandy said: "NOW continues to be concerned that spokespeople for the Gore campaign are not clear in their description of the vice president's position, but we firmly believe all women--including poor women--need access to reproductive services including abortion."