George W. Bush continued to clarify his position on abortion today, attempting to defuse charges from his Republican rivals that he has soft-pedaled the subject two days before the state's presidential caucuses.

Today, in an interview on CNN's "Evans and Novak," Bush was asked about his position on the Republican Party's antiabortion plank, which calls for a constitutional amendment banning the procedure. "I want to keep the platform the same," he said.

And, in a brief news conference here, Bush repeated his position and added that the "first step is to convince Americans that we ought to value life, and that's exactly what I intend to do as the leader of the party."

Bush aides said he has answered similarly in the past. But in a recent debate with his Republican rivals, Bush avoided directly answering the question, saying generally that he opposes abortion.

While Bush has been clarifying some positions, he has been fuzzy on others. For instance, the GOP abortion plank makes no mention of the three antiabortion exceptions Bush accepts--rape, incest and when the woman's life is in danger.

When asked if the plank language contradicts his position on abortion, Bush indicated that such details should be left to Congress "if America is ever ready for a constitutional amendment. . . . I think the thing that is important for our party is to nominate somebody who can lead the country. Somebody who can lead us toward a better understanding of life, and somebody who is willing to find a common ground on issues, such as 'partial-birth' abortion and parental notification."

And when asked if he would rule out picking a running mate who supports abortion rights, Bush said, "I'm not going to speculate out loud as to who--as to who may or may not be," saying that the criteria he will be looking at are: "Can the person be president? . . . Do we share a philosophical compatibility? And thirdly, I say somewhat facetiously, but true, does the person like me? Would there be a sense of loyalty?"

Bush rarely mentions abortion on the campaign trail, unless asked by reporters or voters during forums, and rivals Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes have hammered him for it. In a live satellite-fed speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, a group of conservative activists meeting in Northern Virginia, Bush made only an elliptical reference to it, saying: "We are conservatives because we believe in freedom and its responsibilities, family and its duties, and faith and its mercies. We believe in opportunity for all Americans: rich and poor, black and white, young and old, born and unborn."

At a news conference two days ago, Bush said he believed the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing abortion as a constitutional right was a "reach that overstepped the constitutional bounds."

On Friday, he said, in Roe "the court stepped out of bounds and usurped the rights of the legislatures."

At a Democratic fund-raiser in Los Angeles today, President Clinton applauded Bush's candor. "We all just ought to tell the American people what we believe, and let the American people decide," Clinton said. "And I appreciate Governor Bush being candid enough to say he didn't believe in Roe versus Wade."

Bauer, who marked today's anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by visiting the grave of a fetus that was found in a wastewater treatment plant in 1994, criticized the Texas governor on the issue. Bush "is completely out of step with the party he wants to lead," Bauer said.