PHILADELPHIA -- Republicans in Washington are always willing to weigh in on the issues that are important to their conservative base: Iraq, immigration, taxes, federal spending, the Medicare drug plan, the Dubai ports deal.
But lately, hardly anybody in the GOP camp seems eager to address the historic event that transpired this month out in the West and now threatens to roll east, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It is an abortion ban. For the party of the elephant, the new South Dakota law - which prohibits the procedure for every woman in the state, unless she is dying - is truly the elephant in the room.
It puts Republican politicians, especially those seeking the 2008 presidential nomination, squarely on the spot. If they side with conservatives - who tend to vote heavily in the primaries and who generally hope that the South Dakota law will be a weapon to overturn Roe v. Wade - they risk alienating the independent voters who often swing November elections. The swing people generally desire that the right to legal abortion, as established by Roe, be sustained.
That explains why not a single Republican with White House aspirations has declared that the South Dakota law - passed by a Republican legislature and signed March 6 by a Republican governor - should be the model for an ultimate ban on abortions nationwide. None brings up the law at all; the candidates have to be asked first.
It's a crossroads moment in the 33-year-old debate. Grass-roots conservatives, weary of delay and impatient with their Republican leaders, clearly are forcing the issue, hoping this law might find a receptive audience in Washington, where the high court is now staffed with two Bush appointees thought to be hostile to Roe - with perhaps an opportunity for a third appointee before Bush departs. South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds calls the law "a direct frontal assault" on the landmark 1973 ruling.
Democrats, meanwhile, are silent as well, fearing that if they crusade against the South Dakota action, they might appear to be endorsing abortions. But the main action is on the Republican side - because the Republicans are the party in power and therefore have more to lose.
Even ardent foes of abortion acknowledge that the issue is dicey. In the words of Jeffrey Bell, a veteran Washington activist who has worked with religious conservatives, "This is a real curveball that people weren't expecting. I'd understand if strategists might not want their [GOP] clients to say, 'Yeah, South Dakota, bring it on!' They don't know whether the public has moved that far."
Jack Pitney, a former national Republican official and Capitol Hill staffer who tracks GOP politics, said: "This is a delicate situation for the Republicans. It makes a lot of them nervous. It's one thing to just talk about banning abortion - and they do that all the time, because it's a great way to fire up the base and raise money. But it's another thing to actually ban abortion nationwide.
"Because that would raise all kinds of uncomfortable questions that could hurt the party politically - such as, if this is truly a crime, whom do you jail? Very few Republican candidates want to answer that question."
The political heat on Republicans has increased because the South Dakota ban is stricter than the formula adopted by most GOP leaders.
Alan Abramowitz, a nonpartisan analyst at Emory University in Georgia who tracks abortion politics, said: "The danger for Republicans is that the South Dakota story could shift the abortion debate to the question, 'Should virtually all abortions be illegal?' That's not a winning issue, because polls show that a majority of Americans still support legal abortions during the first trimester."
And a new poll, released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, confirmed that the debate over the South Dakota law could split the GOP. When Republican voters were asked whether they would like to see South Dakota's law become the national template, 51 percent said yes and 43 percent said no. As for the swing-voting independents, 28 percent said yes and 63 percent said no. Even 56 percent of all Southern voters said no.
Sen. George Allen of Virginia, an aspirant for the class of '08, performed rhetorical zigzags this month on Meet the Press. When asked whether he would like to see a nationwide abortion ban, he said several times that he respected states' rights. When asked whether he favored overturning Roe, he started talking about how kids need to tell their parents before seeking an abortion. Then he segued back to states' rights.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has said he would have signed the law as an expression of states' rights; Arizona Sen. John McCain says he would have signed, as long as the law exempted rape and incest victims (which it doesn't). But none of them has endorsed Rounds' talk of a "frontal assault" on Roe - not even Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a possible '08 candidate and anti-abortion purist.