Pro-choice Republican Briscuso falls short ANALYSIS

September 12, 1990|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Evening Sun Staff

An elaborately designed plan by Republican supporters of abortion rights to demonstrate that a pro-choice candidate could win among conservative primary voters has clearly fallen far short in Maryland's 1st Congressional District -- but perhaps not LTC so far short as to be totally discredited as a political thesis.

Ray Briscuso, the 30-year-old lawyer and former White House aide who based his campaign heavily on the abortion rights issue, was an unimpressive also-ran in a field of eight Republicans competing for the party nomination to oppose Democratic Rep. Roy Dyson in the Nov. 6 general election. Briscuso polled less than half the 28 percent for Wayne Gilchrest, the Republican nominee who lost narrowly to Dyson two years ago.

But Briscuso's performance ran enough ahead of expectations raised by The Sun poll published Sunday -- it showed him seventh with 2 percent of the vote -- to encourage the abortion rights Republicans to believe their approach may pay richer dividends in other campaigns later.

"We went from 2 percent to 12 percent and that's more than respectable," said Roger Stone, the Washington political consultant who planned the campaign. "We clearly got a big bump out of it, but not enough."

On the other hand, the Briscuso campaign spent about $100,000 on the experiment, enough so that the result might be considered the least that could have been expected.

The plan was based on a poll taken last summer that showed that although 77 percent of the likely voters in the Republican primary described themselves as conservative, 53 percent supported abortion rights, compared with 40 percent opposed to abortion.

The plan called for an intensive telephone canvass to identify 20,000 "pro-choice" Republicans, then pursue them with telephone calls, targeted mailings and $120,000 to $150,000 worth of radio and television advertising -- all emphasizing that, despite his otherwise conservative credentials, Briscuso was committed to supporting abortion rights.

There were, however, some slips. Although the campaign did identify 18,000 pro-choice prospective Republican primary voters and completed two rounds of telephone calls to most of them, fund-raising fell enough short of the campaign's hopes that the radio and television spending ran only about half of that planned.

The experiment in the 1st District was sponsored in part by Republicans for Choice, a group established earlier this year to try to demonstrate that Republicanism and conservatism cannot equated with adamant opposition to abortion rights. When the poll showed so much apparent abortion rights sentiment among the potential primary voters in the Maryland district, the strategists' hope was to demonstrate the political wisdom of their approach by lifting Briscuso from obscurity to the 'u congressional nomination.

In one sense, the plan was always a long shot because Gilchrest clearly had an original advantage in name recognition growing out of his 1988 campaign against Dyson and perhaps one or two others in the crowded field had modest political bases in one part or another of the sprawling district. Briscuso's chief credential, other than a brief stint in the White House, was the role he played directing the Bush campaign in Maryland in 1988.

In the end, that lack of base was too much to be overcome by so much reliance on a single issue -- even one as volatile as abortion rights has proven to be in other campaigns.

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