The GOP tries to keep the abortion issue from getting too interesting

July 01, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The Republican National Committee has now decided it will forgo the pleasure of hearing witnesses give live testimony before its platform committee at the national convention in San Diego.

Instead, those who want to make their views known are being encouraged to use the mails.

The decision represents an obvious and understandable attempt by the Republicans to minimize the harsh divisions within their party on the abortion-rights issue -- or at least to minimize the extent that those divisions might be exacerbated by the television cameras.

No place to hide

But the hard truth is, as astute politicians on both sides of the issue know, there is no way for the Republican Party to hide from the abortion issue.

The operative question is whether their presidential candidate, Bob Dole, has the skills and clout within his own party to find a solution and then make it stick.

If he does not, it will be that much harder for the former Senate majority leader to make his fundamental argument that he is a man who would know how to deal with Congress from the White House.

As a practical matter, the platform committee deliberations themselves -- even without hearings and outside witnesses -- could provide more lively television than might be good for Senator Dole's political health.

Four years ago, the meetings in the week before the convention featured one committee member who announced she was pregnant and could feel the baby kicking even as she debated and another who declared she herself had been raped as a young woman and wanted to preserve the option of abortion in such cases.

Even more intense

If anything, the debate over the abortion question has grown even more intense in the last four years. In several states support for the right-to-life position against abortion rights has been a critical criterion for delegates.

And in several major states whose electoral votes are important, Republicans are openly and clearly divided. The Pennsylvania delegation, for example, includes 42 delegates who favor abortion rights, 31 who do not.

Opinion polls also point to the abortion issue as a potentially critical one for Senator Dole.

Suburban GOP women

They show that Republican women under 40 years old living in the suburbs are supporting their party nominee in proportions far below the norm.

These are the same voters who defected from George Bush so substantially after the 1992 Republican convention and its emphasis on opposition to abortion rights and on rigidly defined ''family values.''

Few voters claim to cast their ballots solely on the abortion question. Polls usually put the number at about 15 percent who claim to be ''single-issue'' voters, slightly more than half of whom oppose abortion rights.

But it is the issue the Christian Coalition and others on the religious right seem to use most often as a determinative criterion in deciding whom to support.

The selection by Senator Dole of a pro-choice vice-presidential nominee would both wreck the appearance of party harmony at San Diego and cause some conservatives to take a walk.

The perception of caving

But if Mr. Dole is perceived as caving in to these cultural conservatives, he risks the same kind of defections President Bush suffered -- by voters, largely but not exclusively women, who favor abortion rights and are made uneasy by any political bloc defining for them what is morally acceptable.

Up to this point, Senator Dole clearly has had a problem with the issue despite his long history as an opponent of abortion rights.

He seemed to have solved it, at least for the moment, when he recommended that the platform include a general statement of tolerance that would recognize any Republican's right to disagree.

But when he specified that he meant to apply this language to the abortion-rights plank in particular, the wheels came off the tentative compromise.

So the Republican nominee-presumptive is faced with an early and important test of his leadership.

If he doesn't pass it, the political cost could be extremely high.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/01/96

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