SALT LAKE CITY -- Republicans have gathered here for a public debate today over abortion rights that is likely to be a sham battle.
Informed sources said that President Bush's campaign manager, Robert Teeter, has told the supporters of abortion rights that the White House has decided the party will yield "not one inch" on previous platforms calling for a constitutional amendment to forbid abortion.
The abortion-rights advocates also have been told that the party will not allow the issue to reach the national convention floor to be debated at Houston. And the campaign has taken steps to see that there are no state delegations with enough abortion-rights supporters who could force consideration of the issue.
The rules provide that a minority report on the platform can qualify for the floor only if it has the support of 25 percent of the 107-member platform committee or of six state delegations -- goals that appear beyond reach of the GOP dissidents.
The result is that the platform hearings here today are likely to provide the only public and official party forum for discussing abortion. The subject will be on the agenda for an hour, and the witnesses will include four abortion-rights advocates from such groups as Republicans for Choice and four opponents of abortion, including the Republican National Coalition for Life, led by the longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.
Although President Bush's agents are in firm control of the Republican National Committee, platform committee and convention, the issue is a touchy one politically for Mr. Bush because he switched from generally favoring abortion rights to adamantly opposing them when he joined Ronald Reagan's ticket in 1980. The president has continued to hold to that position, even to the point of vetoing District of Columbia appropriations bills that have included public funds for welfare abortions.
The feeling among Republican strategists is that another change of position on the issue would yield Mr. Bush the worst of both worlds: anger from the party's most ardent conservatives, who would feel betrayed, and contempt from moderates, who would see the president as waffling on the question.
Since the issue boiled up again in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's 1989 Webster decision, poll results and election returns have shown, first, that some Republican women will desert the party on the abortion issue, and, second, that a Republican who tries to change his stance will suffer with both sides. Thus, for the Bush campaign, the best hope has been that the issue would remain off the front burner during the 1992 campaign.
The Republican abortion-rights leaders, such as Mary Dent Crisp and Ann Stone, have been urging some softening of the language in the 1984 and 1988 platforms to accommodate what they argue is a clear majority among Republicans for abortion rights.
Those platforms both endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, opposed the use of public money for abortion and called for the appointment of judges "who respect traditional FTC family values and the sanctity of innocent human life."
The Republicans who favor abortion rights have been hoping to enlist some like-minded governors in their quest for the necessary votes to bring the issue to the floor -- or to develop language that might be more acceptable to Republican abortion-rights supporters. And they have some qualified support from Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. of Maine and Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts.
But one influential leader who favors abortion rights, Gov. Pete Wilson of California, has refused to support the platform initiative because he fears it would be seen as a gratuitous embarrassment of the party's incumbent president and candidate for re-election. Mr. Wilson also is serving as Mr. Bush's campaign chairman in California.
Party and campaign leaders have tried to minimize the attention given to the controversy by scheduling the only day of hearings on the platform in a city remote enough that it is not likely to attract large numbers of street demonstrators. Both sides were planning rallies last night and early today.