Abortion fight looms at GOP convention Both sides threaten to take issue to the floor; CAMPAIGN 1996


SAN DIEGO -- Both sides in the divisive struggle over abortion threatened yesterday to take the issue to the floor of next week's Republican National Convention, as members of the party's platform committee began the process of approving a toughly worded anti-abortion plank.

Opponents of abortion have the upper hand at this year's convention, surveys of GOP delegates show. A draft of the platform released yesterday calls for a complete ban on abortion, a position that has remained the same since the start of the Reagan era in 1980.

But while the thrust of the abortion language isn't changing, the politics of the issue may be. Dividing lines are being drawn more sharply than before.

Two leading Republican moderates, Govs. Pete Wilson of California and William F. Weld of Massachusetts, recently called on the party to drop its abortion plank. Polls of Republican voters in last winter's presidential primaries showed that most disagree with the party's hard-line opposition to abortion, and recent surveys show Bob Dole trailing Bill Clinton by huge margins among women, a gap attributed in part to the abortion issue.

Meantime, anti-abortion forces are digging in their heels and showing more strength inside the party.

Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, has now joined leading anti-abortion activists in pushing to weaken Dole's proposal for the so-called tolerance language on abortion.

Since the Republican defeat in the 1992 election, Reed had been identified with efforts to shift the party's emphasis away from the abortion issue, in hopes of broadening the GOP's appeal. He has also been an informal adviser to the Dole campaign, on abortion and other matters.

Yesterday, however, Reed stood side-by-side with Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum; Bay Buchanan, chairman of her brother Patrick's presidential campaign; and Gary Bauer, a leading social conservative, in opposing Dole's attempt to soften the platform's uncompromising abortion language.

At midafternoon, platform deliberations on abortion were delayed while Dole campaign officials tried to craft yet another compromise on the issue, indicated Lt. Gov. Olene Walker of Utah, chairman of the platform subcommittee on individual rights.

Anti-abortion leaders were demanding that the word "abortion" be removed from Dole's proposed tolerance plank. The plank, designed to appeal to moderate Republican women, recognizes "that members of our party have deeply held and sometimes differing views on issues like abortion."

Weeks of pressure from anti-abortion activists had already forced Dole, who has been consistently anti-abortion throughout his political career, to retreat on the issue. For instance, his wording last month -- calling abortion a matter of "personal conscience" -- was withdrawn after objections from abortion opponents, who maintain that a fetus has an inalienable right to life.

Yesterday, anti-abortion leaders vowed to go to the floor of the convention, if necessary, to remove the tolerance language from the abortion plank, where Dole wants it placed. They want it elsewhere in the platform, either at the beginning or end, to further weaken its impact.

Abortion rights leaders, for their part, want to force a floor vote on their demand that the party drop its abortion plank. They claim that a growing number of Republicans, mostly women, are ready to leave the party if the current anti-abortion language isn't changed.

"Some of the people who are pro-life want to take our party off the edge of the earth," said Ann Stone, chairman of Republicans for Choice, adding that "if a floor fight is what we need, we'll be able to go to the floor."

Privately, however, abortion-rights Republicans aren't sure they'll be able to come up with the votes they need to bring the issue to the floor. Under party rules, they would need the support of at least six state delegations, one of which is expected to be Maryland.

But Dole campaign officials have been working aggressively behind the scenes to discourage that effort, in the name of party unity, according to one abortion-rights Republican.

Party leaders say privately they're confident an embarrassing abortion fight can be headed off. The overarching goal of next week's convention, organizers have said, is to have the party come across as more moderate and open, reversing the image of intolerance projected by the 1992 convention in Houston.

Abortion-rights groups are planning a demonstration Sunday in San Diego harbor, a flotilla of private boats bearing abortion-rights slogans.

Anti-abortion demonstrators were already at work yesterday, posting giant color photos of aborted fetuses in the plaza outside the meeting hall where the platform deliberations were taking place. "If The Babies Go, I Go," said a placard carried by a San Diego woman who identified herself only as Marcie.

Pub Date: 8/06/96

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