Dole makes a move toward the middle

May 10, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H — MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Elizabeth Dole is being praised in some quarters for her "courage" in saying a few things here recently that the National Rifle Association might find objectionable.

In fact, all Mrs. Dole did in her speech here was reflect public opinion polls. What she most assuredly did not do was defy the NRA by adopting one of the planks of the gun control advocates, such as restrictions on the sale of handguns.

Fringe group

The fact that she was praised for her courage is a reflection of how far out on the fringe you can find Charlton Heston and his allies. The reaction to her speech was tepid because it was a disjointed and perfunctory catalog of issues without any discernible theme, not because it was seen as an affront to the community ethic.

Mrs. Dole also is getting credit from her admirers for not being an extremist on the abortion rights issue. She is against abortion except in cases of rape, incest or a medical threat to the life of the mother. But she isn't willing to endorse a constitutional amendment that would forbid all abortions. It is an academic issue, she points out, because there is no realistic chance of it being enacted.

That may be considered daring politics by the right-to-life extremists who would forbid all abortions under all circumstances. But Mrs. Dole is hardly taking a pro-choice position.

There is no mystery about Mrs. Dole's strategy. She is directing her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination at those Republicans who don't hold the extreme positions on social issues and have resented being told they are immoral for not holding them.

Conventional thought

The conventional wisdom is that these moderate Republicans are not the ones who cast the decisive votes in primaries and caucuses choosing delegates to the nominating convention. Ever since 1980, it is pointed out, the platforms adopted at those conventions by those delegates have called for an absolute prohibition against abortion.

Meanwhile, evidence has mounted over the years that abortion is not a decisive issue in many elections. The voters who say they based their choices on abortion rights make up fewer than 15 percent of the total and they are split almost evenly between those who favor and those who oppose abortion rights. The latter group is slightly larger in some surveys, but not significantly so.

Mrs. Dole's position on abortion -- shared by the front-running Gov. George W. Bush of Texas -- looks more liberal than it is because of the sharp contrast with many other candidates in the Republican field right now.

Platform positions

The obvious question here is whether the tail is wagging the dog in the Republican Party. Is it really essential for all presidential candidates to take the most extreme positions on gun control and abortion? Is it really necessary to declare any pro-choice Republican ineligible for the national ticket? Would the sky fall if the 2000 platform were less extreme on the social questions?

Mrs. Dole is not really taking the lead in moving her party toward liberalism. But she is betting that a conservative but non-extremist stance will find broad acceptance.

It is not political courage. It is political positioning.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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