Texas Gov. George W. Bush was forced today to address an issue he has tried to avoid--abortion.

Asked at a news conference here whether he would counsel a relative or a friend who had been raped to have an abortion, Bush responded: "It would be up to her."

Bush has said abortion should be illegal except in the cases of rape, incest and saving the life of the woman.

When asked a similar question at a recent GOP debate, presidential candidate Gary Bauer said he would urge his own daughter not to have an abortion. Steve Forbes gave a similar answer in an interview today.

Although Bush considers himself an opponent of abortion, he has been criticized by his GOP rivals for soft-peddling the issue, particularly what he would do to bring abortion to a legal end. The GOP front-runner rarely mentions abortion on the campaign trail; it's a central issue with Bauer and Forbes. Forbes has been running ads in Iowa and New Hampshire that feature a woman saying, "If someone kills a pet, it's called a crime. If someone kills a child, it's called a choice" as the camera pans to a sonogram.

Bush came to Iowa Wednesday night and will be campaigning throughout the state through Monday, the day of the state's caucuses. Abortion is an important issue with many of Iowa's socially conservative caucus-goers.

Bush's answers today came closer to defining him on abortion, but stopped short of answering the question Forbes and Bauer have asked: Would Bush appoint only antiabortion judges to the Supreme Court? Bush has always dodged a direct answer, saying that he would appoint "strict constructionists" to the bench.

That answer has drawn criticism from some on the right as well as the left, with both sides accusing him of being purposefully evasive.

When asked today to define the term, Bush said it was someone who "interprets the Constitution for what it is and doesn't use the opportunity of the Constitution to pass legislation or legislate from the bench." When asked what a strict constructionist judge would be forced to conclude about the legality of abortion, Bush didn't answer directly, but said: "Roe v. Wade [the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion] was a reach that overstepped the constitutional bounds as far as I'm concerned."

He declined to cite an example of a Supreme Court case that typified or deviated from a strict constructionist standard, saying he couldn't because he is not a lawyer. And when asked if either of his 18-year-old twin daughters disagreed with him on abortion, Bush refused to answer, saying he preferred to keep his children's lives private, although he wrote in his recent biography that one of his daughters disagreed with him on the death penalty.

When asked how he would respond as president if the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the abortion drug RU-486, Bush said: "I would be inclined not to accept that ruling by the FDA. That's abortion." But when asked if he would overturn the approval if it were in place by the time he got to office, Bush said: "That's too hypothetical." The FDA appears to be close to making a decision on the product.

Forbes today said Bush continued to be evasive. "It's just ridiculous that he's not willing to take a firm stand on the life issue. On the life issue, he's becoming a pacifist, not an activist."

Asked about Forbes's criticism, Bush said: "I've got a record of adoption. I've signed a parental notification law, worked hard for abstinence education. I've got a good strong record. I've done well in office. I've performed."