Abortion loses some urgency as primary races close

September 10, 1990|By C. Fraser Smithand Sandy Banisky

With a day remaining in the 1990 primary election season, abortion remained a paramount issue for many candidates and voters in Maryland -- but it lost some of the spotlight to the role of special-interest money in elections, to Gov. William Donald Schaefer and even to Iraq's President Saddam Hussein.

The threat of war and the massive mobilization of soldiers and equipment in the Middle East may well have pushed state-level political races -- often obscure for many voters -- even further from the public consciousness.

Also, there were stories about the increasing power of Maryland political action committees -- which have doubled their contributions since 1986. Money from PACs, going almost exclusively to incumbents, may have helped to blunt the force of the abortion controversy.

The waning moments of leafletting and door knocking have featured energetic campaigning by Governor Schaefer, who handed out campaign money and made radio ads and personal appearances for legislative friends and allies who arefacing re-election difficulties -- sometimes as a result of challenges from abortion-rights or anti-abortion candidates.

Abortion-rights advocates and their opponents continued working to the last.

Volunteers organized by Maryland Right to Life were helping anti-abortion candidates canvass several districts around the state.

And Choice PAC, one of the fund-raising groups organized to elect legislators who favor protecting the right to abortion, came up with$12,000 in the last week alone to help three Senate candidates pay for advertisements and extra staff in their drives to oust anti-abortion senators.

In the 1st Congressional District -- the most competitive race in the state's eight districts -- several candidates chose to make the abortion issue the focus of their campaigns.

From the start, Delegate Barbara O. Kreamer, D-Harford, made sure that her abortion-rights position was featured on campaign literature. She has been endorsed by the National Abortion Rights Action League.

The man she is trying to unseat, Representative Roy P. Dyson, says he believes in abortion to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest. Over the weekend, each side accused the other of lying about Mr. Dyson's position -- with Ms. Kreamer claiming he has supported a nationwide ban on abortion and Mr. Dyson accusing her of misrepresenting his record.

In the Republican campaign in that district, Barry Sullivan declared himself against abortion for any reason and won the support of Maryland Right to Life. And Raymond Briscuso was the most vocal abortion-rights Republican, winning the endorsement and financial support of a new Washington group called Republicans for Choice.

That group announced it would make the Briscuso campaign a laboratory for abortion-rights Republican politics and planned a media budget of $120,000 to $150,000. But TheSun Poll showed Mr. Briscuso was supported by only 2 percent of the district's Republicans. Mr. Sullivan drew 7 percent.

Nevertheless, the issue appeared to be on the minds of a sizabl percentage of 1st District voters. About a third of respondents to The Sun Poll said that their vote was affected by the candidates' stands on the abortion issue -- with 39 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of Democrats saying their votes would be influenced by politicians' stands on the issue.

When asked to name the most important issue in the race, abou 10 percent of the voters polled mentioned abortion, though about the same percentage named such issues as the environment and education.

The abortion issue picked up momentum last March, when a bruising anti-abortion filibuster stalled the state Senate for eight days.

Advocates of a bill that would keep abortion widely available in Maryland were thwarted by opponents of abortion. The "choice" forces emerged with determination to build turn out their opponents and create a filibuster-proof Senate, a body with enough abortion-rights supporters to break any delaying tactics.

Groups on both sides organized new fund-raising groups or reinvigorated old ones. The Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League started raising money and began an elaborate system of endorsements for candidates around the state. Planned Parenthood volunteers made get-out-the-vote calls.

Over the weekend, both sideswere sounding confident -- though they offered a disclaimer or two.

Steven Rivelis, chairman of Choice PAC, said he believes voters care enough about the abortion issue to elect candidates who have staked campaigns on protecting that right.

"Our strategy was very clear, very simple and quite direct. It was to keep ourselves singly focused on electing pro-choice candidates. We stuck to the strategy. Because of that, we've been tremendously successful in bringing in the dollars," he said.

Mr. Rivelis scoffed at criticism for backing one-issue campaigns.

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