For Clinton, abortion issue poses Pa. primary pitfall

GERMOND & WITCOVER

April 11, 1992|By GERMOND & WITCOVER

The touchy issue in the Pennsylvania primary campaign over the next two weeks will be abortion rights. The front-running Democrat, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, may have some tricky currents to negotiate.

The abortion issue has moved to center stage in recent weeks as Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, a conventionally liberal Democrat on most issues, has run what amounts to a crusade to wean the national party away from its hard commitment to

choice.

He contends that the issue has been a principal reason for widespread defections among working-class Democrats who oppose abortion.

In a speech at Notre Dame Law School last week, Mr. Casey put it this way:

"When the Democrats convene in New York this July, it will be 20 years since George McGovern 'opened up the party's doors.' In the two decades since then, the party's position on abortion went from open to closed, from dialogue to dictate. And millions of Democrats headed for those open doors and walked right out. And they never came back."

Mr. Casey argued that on abortion the party doesn't speak for him nor for "millions of pro-life Democrats like me, nor the millions who are ambivalent but who know they are against abortion on demand -- Democrats that the party must have if they are to win in November."

Mr. Casey's strong views will gain even more attention because the Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments April 22 -- six days before the primary -- on a challenge to the Pennsylvania law restricting abortions that he signed.

The law would require, among other things, parental consent, spousal notification and a 24-hour cooling-off period before an abortion could be performed -- restrictions that abortion rights advocates consider serious infringements of choice.

The importance of the case in the Supreme Court has been elevated by a decision on the part of abortion rights groups to join abortion opponents in urging the court to use the case to decide whether to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion.

The abortion rights groups, such as Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League, adopted that stance as part of a strategy to persuade the court to take sooner rather than later an action they consider inevitable -- and to thus throw the issue into the presidential election campaign this fall.

The issue is particularly tricky for Mr. Clinton because some abortion rights activists already suspect his commitment on the question.

In Arkansas, he has supported parental consent provisions and opposed public funding of abortions, the latter being a serious breach in the eyes of the abortion rights groups.

Thus, Mr. Clinton will be in a position in which any sign of accommodation with Mr. Casey will be seen as pandering. And Mr. Clinton can hardly escape discussing the issue when it has been given so much prominence.

The abortion position of Mr. Clinton's only remaining rival, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, is no more satisfactory to Mr. Casey. Mr. Brown opposes abortion personally but says he would do nothing in his official position to interfere with the right to choose.

As it happens, that is the combination of views that usually wins the most support in public opinion polls -- even among those conservative Democrats for whom Mr. Casey is the champion.

Super Tuesday Two

At this point, though the calendar for the final round of Democratic primaries June 2 may seem academic, that final day amounts to Super Tuesday Two.

Because of a continuing row over legislative redistricting, a court order has moved the Ohio primary back from May 5 to June 2.

The 151 Ohio delegates to be chosen that day are to be added to 348 from California, 105 from New Jersey, 55 from Alabama, 25 from New Mexico and 16 from Montana for a total of 700, compared to 793 chosen on March 10.

Although the Ohio move isn't expected to be significant, the effect of delaying a decision on those 151 delegates is likely to be that Mr. Clinton will find it takes much longer to reach the 2,145 needed to assure his nomination.

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