Anti-Abortion Leaders Size Up G.O.P. Candidates

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the New York Times

Anti-Abortion Leaders Size Up G.O.P. Candidates

by
Robin Toner

WASHINGTON, July 29 - After 30 years of political organizing within the Republican Party, the anti-abortion movement has won a series of victories in legislatures and courts and stands tantalizingly close to winning even more. But these are anxious days for the movement.

Six months before the Iowa caucuses, abortion opponents are trying to adjust to a strikingly different political landscape. For the first time in a generation, they face in Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, a front-runner for the Republican nomination who supports abortion rights.0730 07

Abortion opponents are dividing their support among several other candidates, including Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and a relatively recent convert to the cause, and Fred D. Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee.

And some strategists and outside analysts are voicing a theory that was once unthinkable in the Republican Party: that a convergence of forces, including the early primaries in moderate states like California, may have diminished the influence of the anti-abortion movement on the Republican nominating process.

Anti-abortion leaders are increasingly moving to defend the seminal victory they won in 1980, the definition of the Republican Party as the "Pro-Life Party" in a plank in its platform and its choice of presidential nominees. Key leaders are signing on with the anti-abortion candidates they see as best able to go the distance. And some of those leaders are warning, bluntly, that the abortion issue is fundamental - not something to be finessed.

At the Republican straw poll in Iowa next month, abortion opponents will circulate a petition calling on the party to reassert its values, honor its platform and choose an anti-abortion nominee. "We have our eye on the goal," said Kim Lehman, president of the Iowa Right to Life Committee, who said that the overwhelming majority of Iowa caucus-goers oppose abortion. "Our goal is to get a pro-life president, so we can be confident of his position on legislation and confident of his judges."

James Bopp Jr., an influential conservative lawyer and general counsel to the National Right to Life Committee, said, "For the Republican Party to nominate a pro-choice candidate would be very destructive of the party." Mr. Bopp, who has signed on as an adviser to the Romney campaign, said that a Republican nominee who supported abortion rights "would essentially be at war with the base, and that would manifest itself in a lot of different ways."

Richard Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has been touting Mr. Thompson as a compelling combination of electability and social conservatism (although Dr. Land said he does not make endorsements). He is also warning that the party cannot assume it will hold the anti-abortion vote in a general election if it nominates a supporter of abortion rights.

"If there is no difference on that issue, then all of a sudden a lot of other issues start getting oxygen," Dr. Land said.

Most of the Republican candidates are scrambling to demonstrate both their anti-abortion credentials and their ability to win. Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative stalwart, said she sensed "concerns" at the grass roots about all the candidates at the front of the pack.

"Every day somebody asks me who we're going to support," said Mrs. Schlafly, who has attended every Republican convention since 1952 and has been a longtime defender of the party platform's anti-abortion plank. "I tell them I don't know. I can't predict. I just tell them to go out and get elected as delegates to the convention."

Mr. Romney, who campaigned for years as a supporter of abortion rights in Massachusetts, reversed his stand a little more than two years ago and has worked hard to ease any doubts about his commitment to the anti-abortion cause.

At the National Right to Life Committee's convention last month in Kansas City, Mr. Romney declared, "I proudly follow a long line of converts - George Herbert Walker Bush, Henry Hyde and Ronald Reagan, to name a few."

But his commitment is challenged by some, including Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, a longtime anti-abortion champion and rival for the nomination who argued, "He's flipped on a number of the pro-life issues."

Mr. Thompson has had to deal with questions in recent weeks about his lobbying work on behalf of a group seeking to ease federal rules on abortion counseling in the early 1990s. Even so, as he said in a video appearance at the Kansas City convention, "on abortion-related votes, I've always been 100 percent."

What many abortion opponents say they crave these days is certainty. Analysts say the Supreme Court could now be just a vote or two away from a major rollback of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision declaring a constitutional right to abortion. But the next president will be crucial. And while President Bush has been given high marks by conservatives for his nominees, the anti-abortion movement has been "disappointed a number of times" in the past, Mrs. Schlafly said.

The stakes are historically high, which explains why Republican candidates including Mr. Giuliani have been promising to appoint to the court "strict constructionists," widely considered political code for judges with a conservative agenda.

In fact, the anti-abortion movement has so much at stake that some of Mr. Giuliani's allies make a strikingly counterintuitive case: that abortion opponents should cast their lot with Mr. Giuliani, despite his long support for legalized abortion.

Mr. Giuliani's allies argue that their candidate is sensitive to the need to reduce abortions, increase adoptions and empower the states to regulate abortion. And the Democrats will inevitably nominate a candidate "who will not be a moderate on those issues, but intensely hostile," said Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas, who describes himself as both "pro-life" and a Giuliani supporter. Moreover, Mr. Sessions and others argued, Mr. Giuliani can beat the Democrats.

Hadley Arkes, a professor at Amherst College and a leading social conservative legal thinker, said he had recently gotten "feelers" from some in the Giuliani camp. But Mr. Arkes, an opponent of abortion, said he could not fathom a way the party could nominate Mr. Giuliani and remain the same "pro-life" party it has been for 25 years.

"You change the constituency of the party," Mr. Arkes said - either by showing that anti-abortion voters are not necessary to win, or by showing that anti-abortion voters are willing to subsume their cause to other issues.

Even so, Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said recent poll analysis suggested that some anti-abortion voters may be willing to consider that possibility.

Jennifer Stockman, co-chairwoman of the Republican Majority for Choice, said she found it "heartening" that "a moderate is doing so well and that so many conservatives believe in him as well." Her counterparts in the anti-abortion movement said they were confident the party's anti-abortion tradition would hold and were beginning to mobilize to ensure they were right.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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