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Archive for Monday, July 24, 2000

Abortion continues to rock GOP platform

July 24, 2000

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— When Republicans meet in Philadelphia this week to write party policy in advance of their national convention, some of them will be energized by two ideas that are long on conviction, short on practicality and headlong in conflict.

One is that the nation might actually be persuaded to amend the Constitution to ban abortion. Period.

The other is that the Republican Party might actually be persuaded to stop calling for that goal.

As Associated Press interviews with most of the 2,066 convention delegates show, tension over abortion rights is deeply embedded in the party despite a wish by both sides to avoid an argument that could complicate George W. Bush's chances of becoming president.

The interviews indicate that, once again, anti-abortion forces have the upper hand but also, once again, that they are a minority -- if a potent one -- on the matter of a constitutional ban.

Among the more than 1,800 delegates surveyed, 43 percent said they want the party platform to continue to advocate a ban while 31.5 percent do not. The rest did not know or did not respond.

Among delegates who are also on the platform committee -- the most likely flashpoint of the abortion debate -- proponents of a ban outnumbered the other side by a 3-1 margin, although the views of 43 percent were unknown.

"There is pretty much of a split on the issue," said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University specialist in abortion politics.

But among those in charge of the convention and platform, "there's an agreement reflecting the views of George W. Bush that this should be kept in the platform, primarily as a way of ensuring the loyalty of the religious right."

Those who oppose calling for a ban in the platform do so for different reasons. Some favor broad abortion rights while others -- notably presidential candidate Bush -- believe abortion should be legal in at least limited cases that a prohibition rules out.

Still others oppose abortion rights but say it is inconceivable that a constitutional amendment ending them could pass in Congress and enough states. If a ban has no chance, they argue, why risk an open party fight?

"You can call for it, but it's a useless call," said Florida delegate Tom Slade, a former state party chairman. "You really are shouting into a windstorm."

The other side says the anti-abortion principle is paramount regardless of its chances.

"We need to stand for what's right," said Alabama delegate Mike Hubbard, 38, of Auburn, a member of the platform committee. "You have to have something that separates you from the Democrats, and that's certainly one of them."

Platform members are to receive a draft of the document Thursday, break into groups Friday to go over each section and propose changes, and vote to adopt the platform Saturday. The convention, opening two days later, will be asked to ratify the platform, with little chance to debate details at that point.

Abortion-rights Republicans have been told to expect no changes. But they are vowing to press their case that the platform should drop references to abortion or at least make an explicit statement of respect and welcome to people who feel as they do on the issue.

Advocates on both sides are keenly aware that a blowup in Philadelphia could be costly in what is shaping up to be a close election.

Republicans "have to make sure they do not get themselves into a divisive battle, or they will lose the presidency and then they won't be able to do anything," said York County, Penn., delegate William Goodling, 72, who favors abortion restrictions.

Delegate Priscilla Rakestraw, 56, of Wilmington Del., agreed. "I am personally pro-choice," she said, "but this is not the time to debate that issue."

Abramowitz said Bush, in deciding to leave the abortion language alone, calculated that it was better to mollify religious conservatives than abortion-rights activists on that issue.

Bush advisers also evidently concluded that while he may lose some votes over the subject in the fall, abortion is not a prime issue in the election.

"I think they're largely right about that," Abramowitz said, "although I think it does hurt them at least marginally."

Bush is reserving the option of picking a running mate who supports abortion rights. Delegates, who have no say in that decision, seem open to the idea.

Republican strategists and outside experts believe Bush is going into the convention in a stronger position than nominee Bob Dole did in 1996 and has a better chance of keeping a lid on fractiousness.

Yet it's clear convictions have not changed much since 1996, when Republicans lined up for and against the abortion plank in similar numbers.

"If George Bush leaves the conservative planks in the platform, and does nothing to betray the conservative constituency, he's going to win by a landslide," said Alabama delegate Larry Sims, 53, a former state representative.

John H. Baker, 74, a physician and delegate from Whitinsville, Mass., saw it another way. "The Republican Party has to strive to be mainline," he said. "We have to avoid radical opinions."

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