WASHINGTON -- The White House abruptly changed plans and decided not to send its nominee for surgeon general to Capitol Hill yesterday. Instead, it sent Vice President Al Gore to Tennessee with the nominee, Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr., to highlight the physician's work in combating teen-age pregnancy.
The schedule shift was made after a meeting Sunday evening in which the White House officials responsible for shepherding the nomination through the Senate decided that they should lay more groundwork before dispatching Dr. Foster to confront his critics directly.
The Clinton administration also tried more vigorously than before to turn the focus away from Dr. Foster's candor about how many abortions he has performed over the years in his practice as an obstetrician, and toward the issue of abortion rights.
That is an issue on which President Clinton's deputies believe they have the support of a majority of Americans, and which will ultimately win them backing for Dr. Foster in the Senate.
Both Mr. Gore and the White House spokesman, Mike McCurry, pointed to opponents of abortion rights as the reason the nomination was in peril. "The truth is that there are extremists within the right-to-life movement who have now hooked Republicans and Congress by the nose and they're dragging them around," Mr. McCurry said in his midday briefing.
Using unusually blunt language, Mr. McCurry accused the anti-abortion forces of insisting on Dr. Foster's defeat as a reward for having helped elect Republican candidates last November.
But even as Mr. Gore appeared with Dr. Foster in a low-income housing complex in Nashville to promote the nominee's work in helping to curb teen-age pregnancy, the White House was conceding that it faced a major battle.
No Republican in the Senate has declared support for Dr. Foster, who has given conflicting accounts of the number of abortions he has performed in his 38-year medical career. And while the White House has vowed to fight vigorously on his behalf, it has won public backing from only a few Senate Democrats.
"I think he's going to be very hard to confirm," Speaker Newt Gingrich said at a meeting in Georgia yesterday. "I think it's going to be a very embarrassing set of hearings."
After Sunday, when top administration officials had appeared on television to defend Dr. Foster's record, White House officials said the nominee would make courtesy calls in the Senate yesterday afternoon. To pave the way, it helped to arrange for yesterday's publication in the Washington Post of an article by Dr. Foster that ran under the headline, "Why I Want to Be Surgeon General."
But at a strategy session Sunday evening, a White House team headed by Erskine Bowles, a deputy chief of staff, concluded that it was too soon to subject the 61-year-old gynecologist and obstetrician to the charged atmosphere on Capitol Hill. Those who took part in the discussions said they had calculated that a quick trip by Mr. Gore with Dr. Foster, the acting director of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, to their home state might attract television cameras and public attention to the project that earned Dr. Foster national recognition.
White House officials said on last night that they would not be prepared to dispatch Dr. Foster on his first round of courtesy calls until tomorrow.Instead, they said they planned a meeting at a White House office building today.