Democrats seize on abortion rights in governor's race Issue arises in defeat of 2 GOP moderates

September 17, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith and JoAnna Daemmrich | C. Fraser Smith and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Abortion gained new prominence in the race for governor yesterday after two pro-abortion rights Republican senators were defeated in Tuesday's primary by conservatives -- and Democrats quickly blamed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, calling her intolerant, radical and out of step.

The two defeated GOP senators -- minority leader F. Vernon Boozer of Baltimore County and John W. Derr of Frederick -- apparently suffered at the polls because of their Senate votes during this year's General Assembly session against a ban on a particular late-term abortion procedure.

"It's an interesting statement about the direction of the Sauerbrey-led Republican Party," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the Democratic incumbent.

"They took two of the most experienced legislators in either party and defeated them for taking responsible positions on gun violence and the right for a woman to choose," the governor said.

"I think it was very unfortunate to see this kind of intolerance from the leadership of their party."

Sauerbrey responded yesterday by saying she had been expecting an effort by Glendening to present her as "some sort of demon" just as she says he did in 1994.

"The citizens of Maryland are not going to buy it this time," she said.

Sauerbrey promised again to leave current Maryland law on abortion in place, a law that gives women freedom of choice.

Nevertheless, she said, she would ban the extremely rare procedure sometimes called "partial-birth abortion," a subject of controversy in Annapolis and Washington in recent years.

"No governor is going to make changes in the abortion law without the citizens having a voice," she said.

"As governor, I will respect the right of citizens to speak at referendum, and I will uphold the law they passed."

Glendening said the defeat of Derr and Boozer -- and the loss of Michael Steele of Prince George's County in the GOP primary for state comptroller -- suggests that Republicans are as narrowly focused geographically as they are philosophically.

Sauerbrey, her running mate Richard D. Bennett and the leading candidate for comptroller, Larry Epstein, are all from Baltimore County.

But some wondered whether abortion could be used effectively by the Democrats as a central issue in the gubernatorial campaign -- even as a way to build a sense of urgency into a Democratic campaign in search of a galvanizing theme.

"Can it be used to frighten and motivate pro-choice women? Yes," said Keith Haller, president of the polling firm Potomac Survey Research.

"Whatever [Glendening] can do to energize the core Democratic base to be there in big numbers -- that has to be his top strategic priority."

But Haller offered this caution: "When you look at the polling numbers, you know he has to be very careful about painting her as too extreme because she does have an established profile."

Voters could react negatively, he said, to efforts to portray her in ways that don't square with the perceptions they have.

In a July poll of registered Maryland voters, only 58 percent of the sample identified themselves as pro-choice -- in part, perhaps, because some of the critical issues have been settled.

Others wonder whether the controversy over the late-term abortion procedure has caused some to turn away.

But Glendening said in a telephone interview yesterday that the issue for voters is much broader.

"This is not only about partial-birth abortion. It's an attack on the right of a woman and doctor to make this fundamental decision," he said.

"She [Sauerbrey] has opposed that for 20 years. Now she says it's not important."

Sauerbrey said she regards the abortion issue as extremely serious, and she made clear yesterday that she supports a ban on the procedure -- and further restricting government funding for abortion.

"I think there are areas that the public comes together around, and partial-birth abortion is an area that I think has wide support," she said.

"People may be pro-choice but they usually don't want partial births, or to fund abortions just for convenience's sake."

If elected governor, she said, she would sign a measure, if passed by the Assembly, making it a crime to perform the controversial abortion procedure.

Abortion has not often surfaced as an issue since the General Assembly enacted sweeping legislation guaranteeing a woman's right to abortion in 1991.

Maryland voters overwhelmingly upheld that law at the polls the next year.

However, anti-abortion activists have been trying to ban the procedure during which a fetus is partly delivered, then its skull is collapsed to allow it to be removed.

The effort in Maryland is part of a national movement. Congress has twice attempted to prohibit the procedure, only to have President Clinton veto the bills.

Two dozen states have also done so, but most of the laws are being challenged in court.

Yesterday, after the loss of Boozer and Derr, Democrats and abortion-rights forces were saying the issue had changed.

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