WASHINGTON -- Sen. Phil Gramm, in his endless effort to peddle himself as the true candidate of the Republican far right, is clearly disturbed by Majority Leader Bob Dole's conspicuous -- in a rightward direction on one issue after another.
Gramm, seeking to paint Dole as a flaming moderate despite the Senate leader's repeated tackings to starboard, has tried to undercut him with the Christian right by challenging him to sign an anti-abortion pledge, as Gramm has done.
At issue is the plank in the last three Republican platforms calling for a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions. The pledge, which would bar abortions even in cases of rape and incest, is catnip for the Christian Coalition, at whose annual convention Gramm showboated his challenge to Dole.
Dole, who dodged the challenge, knows a thing or two about pledges. In his 1988 New Hampshire primary campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, he declined to accept rival Pete duPont's challenge in a candidate debate to sign a no-tax pledge. Then-Vice President George Bush immediately jumped on Dole's refusal with a television ad that helped defeat him in a state where taxes is a particularly dirty word, New Hampshire having neither an income tax nor a general sales tax.
Dole's defense in not signing the pledge at that time was that he never signed anything he hadn't read thoroughly. But he also believed as a veteran legislator and champion compromiser that you never say never on anything.
This time around, however, having been burned in 1988, Dole made a point months ago, in anticipation of the 1996 New Hampshire primary, to sign the no-tax pledge.
Regarding the anti-abortion pledge, however, the matter is a bit more complicated politically. Although Dole has long been on record against abortion, he is well aware of strong sentiment within the Republican Party for a softening of the anti-abortion plank at the 1996 GOP national convention.
Those who subscribe to the late Lee Atwater's "big tent" theory -- that the Republican Party must be broad enough to embrace differences on such social issues as abortion -- fear that keeping the current anti-abortion plank in 1996 may be the GOP nominee's undoing. Poll after poll continues to find majority voter support for a woman's right to choose, under certain limitations.
Dole, as a presidential candidate as well as a skillful legislative practitioner of compromise, knows it will ill serve him to be caught in the middle of a politically inflammatory fight over abortion at the convention next summer in San Diego. Hence he wants to avoid painting himself into a corner on the issue.
Gramm, to be sure, knows all this as well and would like nothing better than to put Dole on the griddle on the abortion issue, now and at the convention. So it wasn't surprising that when Dole appeared before the Christian Coalition the other day after Gramm's taunting remarks about him, Gramm supporters waved copies of the pledge at him, calling on him to sign it.
Dole reminded the crowd that he had long been committed to to "protect the sanctity of all human life" and urged his listeners: "Don't look at pledges; look at the record [of his consistent opposition to abortion]."
That plea doesn't mean that Dole in the end may not crumble and sign the pledge anyway. The lesson he learned the hard way about pledges in the 1988 New Hampshire primary haunts him to this day. But it is clear from the comment of a Dole campaign spokesman that the Senate leader hopes the issue can be compromised between now and August.
"It is still almost a year before the convention convenes to draft a platform," the spokesman said. "There is still plenty of time to respond to this important concern." As for Gramm, he said, "His campaign has languished, and now he is trying to exploit abortion. Running for president does not require responding to Phil Gramm's ploy du jour."
Much may depend on the course of Dole's drive for the party nomination. If the professional, "scientific" polls hold up and he wins the nomination handily, he will be in a strong position to orchestrate a modification in the abortion plank that will enhance his chances for election.
But if the road gets bumpier for him on the way to San Diego, his demonstrated ability to nuzzle up to the far right may be seen again on the anti-abortion pledge. Never say never.