WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Fueling a divisive debate over abortion that threatens to disrupt the Republican convention, Bob Dole said in TV interviews yesterday that he would not rule out choosing a vice-presidential running mate who supported abortion rights.
The likely Republican presidential nominee said he knew his position would "distress" some people, but added: "I am the nominee. I need to make the choice. And I need to find someone who can be president if necessary. And we also need to win the election, and it's not very far away."
His comments, made in an interview on NBC's "Today" show, did not mark a shift in his position. Dole has said before that he would not make abortion a litmus test for a vice-presidential nominee. But coming on the heels of his statement last month that he wished to add a "declaration of tolerance" to the abortion plank in the party's platform -- and at a time when he is earnestly scouting vice-presidential possibilities -- his comments seemed to drive a further wedge between himself and social conservatives.
Dole's remarks were seen by some Republicans as a much-needed overture to women, who favor President Clinton by wide margins, according to recent polls, and to other moderates whose support is considered vital to Dole's election prospects.
And they also suggested that he may be considering such Republican governors as Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania or Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey -- both abortion rights supporters -- as possible running mates.
Colin L. Powell, still at the top of Dole's list of possible vice-presidential nominees, also supports abortion rights. But he has said repeatedly that he is not interested in running for elective office in 1996. And in the TV interview yesterday, Dole said he had spoken with Powell recently "and came away with the impression that he meant what he said."
Anti-abortion activists, still smarting from Dole's desire for tolerant language attached to the abortion plank, predicted yesterday that a running mate who supported abortion rights would hurt Dole's chances of winning.
"I'd like to see him be president; I don't think he will be if he doesn't pick a running mate with a clear conservative message across the board," said Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council. "All the conservatives I've talked to want him to pick an across-the-board conservative -- someone who's for lower taxes, smaller government, traditional family values and the sanctity of life."
Bauer said he thought that most "traditional, pro-family" delegates to the convention would be "very insulted" if Dole did not choose a vice-presidential candidate who was opposed to abortion in most circumstances.
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, has said there will be "problems at the convention from hundreds and hundreds of delegates" if the abortion issue is not resolved ++ to the satisfaction of his organization's conservative, anti-abortion rights members.
Mike Russell, spokesman for the Christian Coalition, said the organization still remained confident that Dole would choose a "pro-life, pro-family" running mate, even though Dole's comments have caused great "angst and confusion."
"If he does not choose someone who is in step with his constituency, it hurts the ticket," Russell said. "You're not going to have the enthusiasm in the grass roots."
Some in the Christian Coalition have suggested that its 1.7 million members will "sit the election out" if Dole names a running mate who supports abortion rights.
Patrick J. Buchanan, Dole's chief challenger during the primary race, has withheld his endorsement of Dole chiefly because of the abortion issue. During the primary campaigns, Buchanan said his delegates would storm out of the convention if Dole changed the platform or did not select a suitably conservative running mate.
In yesterday's interview, Dole, who opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother, said his running mate would have to support some abortion curbs such as parental notification for minors and bans on late-term abortions.
"What I want to do is reach out to people," Dole said. "The Republican Party, it is and should be, an inclusive party."
Ann Stone, head of Republicans for Choice, said Dole's remarks were "music to my ears." She said Dole's comments would go a long way toward quelling the biggest fear among moderate Republicans -- that the former Kansas senator would be perceived as a "tool of extremists" in Congress.
"Dole is sending exactly the right message," Stone said. "He's saying: 'You can trust me. I'm not a nut. I will make my own decisions.' The more he shows openness, tolerance and that he's nobody's puppet, the more it helps."
Such moderate Republicans were also heartened by Dole's pronouncement last month that he intended to add language to the abortion plank of the platform saying those who disagreed with the party's opposition to abortion were welcome in the party.
Pub Date: 7/02/96