RALEIGH, N.C. -- Sen. Jesse Helms got Lisa Johnson's vote the last time he ran, but he might not this year. The reason: his hard-line opposition to abortion.
"The world is changing," explains Ms. Johnson, a 24-year-old paralegal from Raleigh, who says she may vote for Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt on Tuesday because he backs a woman's right to an abortion.
Then again, she confesses, she may not.
One voter's quandary over how much weight to assign the abortion question is a mirror of the complex dynamic surrounding the issue this election year.
Abortion has been a major issue in many races around the country this fall, and it could well prove decisive in some important ones, including Senate contests in North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota, and governor's elections in Florida, Texas, Oregon, Kansas, Minnesota, Alaska and Ohio.
At the same time, the likely mix of winners and losers should allow both sides in the national debate over abortion to claim victory.
Not only are plenty of anti-abortion Republicans expected to survive challenges from abortion-rights Democrats, but so is Pennsylvania's anti-abortion Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey. And in Kansas, abortion-rights Republican Gov. Mike Hayden may well beat back a challenge from an anti-abortion Democrat.
Douglas Bailey, a Republican political consultant who publishes a newsletter on abortion politics, said that in races between candidates whose opposing views on abortion are well-known, the issue means "maybe 2-3-4 points" for a candidate who favors abortion rights.
But Tuesday's balloting may test that widely held conclusion.
Here in North Carolina, as elsewhere, abortion has faded somewhat as voters seethe over the mess in Washington, worry about a possible recession or cast a wary eye on events in the Persian Gulf.
"Abortion is not getting as much attention as it did in 1989, and people respond to the political environment. They respond to what they see on TV, or read in the papers, or hear from the candidates or see in their own lives," said Debra S. Dodson of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.
Another factor is the passage of time since the Supreme Court decision last year in the case of Webster vs. Reproductive
Services, giving states new scope to restrict abortion.
More than 350 measures were introduced in state legislative chambers, but only a handful became law. Meantime, the steadfast refusal of Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter to discuss his personal views on abortion blunted efforts by abortion-rights activists to use his nomination as a rallying point for public concern.
In many races, candidates are no longer emphasizing the issue in their ads. As the campaign ends, they are relying on activist groups to keep abortion before the public or simply concluding that the issue is no longer worth pursuing.
"Quite frankly, women are not feeling the threat," sighed the campaign manager for a Democratic candidate for the Senate who has largely abandoned the abortion-rights issue. "It's important to them, but it's not the only issue, and it's not important enough to make them cast a vote."
In the hard-fought and closely watched Helms-Gantt race, the candidates traded shots over abortion back in September. A poll conducted at the time for the Charlotte Observer found that a quarter of North Carolina voters believed a candidate's stand on abortion could cause them to change their vote this November.
Yet a similar poll two weeks ago found that abortion had plunged from third to sixth place on the list of concerns that state voters considered most important to them.
"Clearly, that wave of intensity following on the heels of Webster wasn't going to continue at that level of intensity," conceded Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
In North Carolina, one of several states in which NARAL is financing an independent campaign on behalf of abortion-rights candidates, the group is using TV and radio ads and 500,000 pieces of mail to promote Mr. Gantt's election.
"I don't know if it's going to be enough to help Harvey over the top, with all these other handicaps," said Ms. Michelman, referring to recent Helms ads raising racial issues against Mr. Gantt, who is black.
Leaders of the anti-abortion movement, who also are targeting the North Carolina race, say their followers remain as committed as ever to single-issue voting.
"To pro-lifers, it doesn't matter what's happening. Whether it's Iraq or the budget, they'll still vote on abortion," said Nancy Myers, communications director of the National Right to Life Committee.
Few expect abortion to disappear as a political factor, no matter what happens in Tuesday's elections.
Republican Party leaders must still struggle to prevent President Bush's and the party's anti-abortion stance from driving younger women and men out of the GOP presidential coalition. Just yesterday, a group of well-known conservatives, led by Phyllis Schlafly, announced formation of the Republican National Coalition for Life and vowed to battle to keep the anti-abortion plank in the platform at the 1992 convention.
And if the Supreme Court should decide to overturn the 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade. which established a woman's right to an abortion, that decision would precipitate an abortion war that dwarfs anything seen thus far, both sides agree.