A SIDE FROM its understandable yearning to recapture the White House, the Republican Party should put prime priority in 1996 on abandoning its ill-conceived stand favoring a constitutional ban on abortions -- no exceptions allowed.
Ever since the Reagan right took control of the GOP in 1980, the party has adopted four successive platforms espousing what it calls a "human life amendment." While it has not defined this term, both sides in the fierce abortion debate interpret it to mean a flat, unconditional prohibition of abortion.
Sen. Bob Dole's assertion this week that he "would not do it again" -- that he would favor exceptions in an anti-abortion amendment for rape, incest or if the mother's life is at risk -- offers the Republicans escape from a dilemma of their own making.
It may have been hazardous for the Senate majority leader to speak out on this explosive issue before he locks up the nomination. The Religious Right and most of the senator's opponents for the GOP presidential nomination are assailing him for deserting their cause. They can be counted on to raise a rumpus at the Republican National Convention in San Diego if Mr. Dole sticks to his present position.
But what may seem unwise in pre-convention season makes a lot of sense post-convention. Public opinion polls indicate that the American people (including most Republicans) are decisively against an unconditional ban on abortion.
By welcoming the endorsement of New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman and dangling a vice presidential slot before a reluctant Gen. Colin Powell, Mr. Dole has identified himself with two of the leading pro-choice figures in his party.
The senator's stand is both sensible and principled. As a veteran of legislative compromise, he knows that extremism is not the way to get things done in this country. As an instinctive centrist, he may even see opportunity in redefining just what his party means by a "human life amendment" when the Republican platform debate begins.
The senator insists he favors overturning the Roe versus Wade decision affirming a woman's right to abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. But the Supreme Court, despite its conservative make-up, has not abandoned its core position. And even the Republican-controlled 104th Congress spurned a bill flatly prohibiting a certain kind of late-stage abortion. If Mr. Dole is indeed feeling his way toward an accommodation on an issue that so divides the nation, that would be a presidential thing to do.