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In GOP Race, Blurring the Lines in the Abortion Debate

Giuliani, man of the moment and man of the year, at a campaign event in New Hampshire. (Reuters).

One of the curiosities of the Republican presidential race is how Rudy Giuliani has managed to maintain his position atop the national polls while holding views on abortion and other social issues that appear to be anathema to the party's conservative base. Fred Thompson has just helped to unravel the mystery.

Giuliani's surprising strength owes much to his performance as a candidate, to his tough talk on national security issues and to perceptions that he may be the strongest candidate the Republicans can field in next year's general election. But it also may reflect the reality that, in practical terms, there is far less difference among the four leading candidates on the issue of abortion than conventional positioning suggests.

The simple way to look at the abortion divide in the Republican race is Rudy against the rest: one abortion rights supporter against a field of abortion opponents. But take a closer look and the distinctions begin to blur -- not in whether other leading candidates support a woman's right to choose or believe abortion should be outlawed in most or all circumstances, but in what each might do about it as president.

On that question, Thompson and Giuliani and the others are not so far apart. This became clearer on Sunday when Thompson appeared on NBC's "Meet The Press" as part of the candidates' rite of passage with host Tim Russert. Russert grilled Thompson at some length on abortion and in the course of the discussion, Thompson said two things of note:

First, he said that, as a senator, he had a "100 percent pro-life" voting record. Second, he said that he does not support the Republican Party's platform plank on abortion, which calls for passage of a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution.

For a candidate who has staked his claim to the GOP nomination as being a true conservative in a contest that includes rivals like Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose conservative credentials have been called into question, that seemed a surprising admission. In truth, it illustrated why many conservative voters have been lacking in enthusiasm about their choices.

Thompson's opposition to a constitutional amendment stems not from any problems he has with the goal of banning most abortions but because he says he has a stronger attachment to the concept of federalism -- his belief that the states are better equipped to deal with such matters than is the federal government.

So if Roe v. Wade were overturned by the Supreme Court (and Thompson said he long has believed that the 1973 ruling legalizing abortion was wrongly decided), he would leave it to each state to decide whether to outlaw the procedure or legalize it.

So would Giuliani. Remember his equivocal answer during the Republican debate at the Reagan Library last May, when he was asked how he would feel if Roe were overturned. Supposedly someone who believes abortion is an important constitutional right, as Giuliani has said he does, would be alarmed by such a decision. His response: "It would be okay." And also okay if the court upheld it, he added.

Giuliani has said that, if he were president and the court struck down Roe, he would take no particular action to try to preserve a woman's right to abortion. In practical terms, he like Thompson would leave it to the states to decide. Nor would he necessarily sign federal legislation to codify Roe if a Democratic Congress acted to preserve abortion rights in the wake of a Supreme Court decision to the contrary. Giuliani calls that possibility a hypothetical.

Although Thompson does not support a constitutional amendment, his communications director Todd Harris said Tuesday that the former Tennessee senator would not attempt to change the Republican platform plank if he becomes the nominee. Nor would Giuliani, who said in June he would let the majority of the party set platform policy (and would then agree or disagree depending).

What about some of the other candidates? John McCain has a record that is staunchly pro-life and he supports a constitutional amendment banning abortions, if it contains certain exceptions. But many social conservatives distrust McCain and he has never been animated as a politician by hot-button social issues.

McCain actually takes different positions on amendments relating to abortion and same sex marriage. He currently opposes a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. In this case, he favors state-by-state action. Communications director Jill Hazelbaker explained the seeming contradiction Tuesday by saying the Supreme Court has ruled on abortion but has not done so on marriage.

Romney once was pro-choice but has since changed his position. He would like to see the Supreme Court overturn Roe and turn the issue back to the states. Unlike Thompson, he also supports a constitutional amendment banning abortion, but spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney sees the amendment as "an aspirational goal but doesn't believe the country is ready for one at this time." That position is similar to the one President Bush took as a candidate in 2000.

Mike Huckabee is the one major Republican candidate who is not equivocal on either abortion or same sex marriage. He opposes both and supports amendments to back up those views.

That leaves Republicans with a conflicting set of conservative philosophies when applied to abortion and seemingly same sex marriage -- and it leaves everyone more or less in the same place when it comes to presidential action. Giuliani stands alone in his support for abortion and gay rights, but he is closer to the rest of the pack in he how he would operate as president on those issues.

Where the candidates all agree is on the kind of judges they would appoint. Giuliani has made clear that he would nominate the same kind of judges Bush has nominated -- and the same as Romney, McCain, Thompson and Huckabee would nominate. Conservatives have interpreted Giuliani's words as a sign that his judicial appointees likely would agree with them on abortion.

In short, Giuliani has sent enough reassuring signals to the right that he would do nothing dramatic to upset abortion orthodoxy within the party -- and his leading rivals have done little to suggest that they could do much to change the status quo in ways he wouldn't -- that the issue may be far less significant than believed. For all these reasons, it should not be so surprising that Giuliani remains a formidable candidate for the GOP nomination.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  November 6, 2007; 1:43 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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bohuslav wrote: "The constitutional amendment to ban abortions debate is a bad barometer of social conservatism. The POTUS has no power to create such an amendment, and there are certainly not enough votes in Congress to even broach the subject."

Well, Governors have no power to create such amendments either, yet Gov. Huckabee was able to be PRO-ACTIVE on this issue and pass an HLA in Arkansas. Not enough votes? Well, in the next eight years there will be
several congressional elections. Things change, bohuslav. Gov. Huckabee passed his HLA with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature (over 80%).

Posted by: all4Him | November 14, 2007 2:04 PM | Report abuse

As President would you instruct your Justice Department to strongly encourage local prosecuters to bring charges of rape
against adult men who bring an underage girl (not her father or guardian) in for an abortion--to destroy the evidence of child abuse, and also prosecute abortion mills who neglect or refuse to report this fact even though it is LAW in most states?

Posted by: fo689 | November 9, 2007 2:59 AM | Report abuse

It's a cinch that Guiliani is the frontrunner because he supports social issues that are important to American citizens! The American public is fed up with a government that threatens to dissolve basic rights based on pandering to the deep pockets of so called religious, political action groups. Rudy will not be exposed as a hypocrite, like so many Republicans are, when it is found that he makes less than perfect personal choices. How refreshing! Wise up extremist Republicans, America is looking for a president, not the second coming.

Posted by: glory25420 | November 7, 2007 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Has anyone heard about this new website, that lets everyone poll and change their vote at any time? I think its called

What about this idea of a NetVote? Could millions of people actually get motivated to this site, making primaries and polls obsolete?

Posted by: AgentG | November 7, 2007 3:22 AM | Report abuse

As a conservative, I've got to say that I'm disappointed and somewhat surprised that so many of my ideological brethren don't understand how accurate and brilliant this article by Dan Balz is.

The abortion issue is very complicated and not a black & white "pro life or pro choice" issue. Where does a person stand on late term abortion, on parental (or other adult family member) notification laws for underage girls wanting an abortion, on federal funding for the procedure, and was it legal for nine unelected and unaccountable judges to invent a "privacy right" to abortion with Roe v Wade, when it clearly doesn't exist in the Constitution?

And at the end of the day, what WOULD a president actually do regarding the entire issue in this country? The more you pay attention to the candidates, the more you see there's almost no difference between Giuliani and the other Republicans regarding abortion, but a world of difference between Giuliani and all the Democratic candidates.

Posted by: pconti777 | November 6, 2007 8:41 PM | Report abuse

The Republican candidates are all whipping a dead horse called "Nov 2008." It's not going to go anywhere.......

Posted by: gbovs | November 6, 2007 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Here is what McCain said in 1999 according to the Washington Post:

"But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations."

Flip flopper, no?

Posted by: kraven001 | November 6, 2007 6:57 PM | Report abuse

Anyone interested in some telling Thompson video from his first week on the trail, with an accompanying column, should try:

Posted by: lanefiller | November 6, 2007 6:52 PM | Report abuse

First off, he popularity came off from Spedt. 11. Any person who is in his position would have done the same. As for running for president, I don;t think so. Let alone any other issues related to running for a president. I have no respect nor any admiration for him, what so ever.

Posted by: reza_hassan | November 6, 2007 6:50 PM | Report abuse

The Honorable Senator from Brokeback Mountain will be remembered for spending his years in Congress moralizing, adhering to the intolerant Grand Old Potty's agenda, and otherwise accomplishing nothing other than representing whateer lobbying interests had paid for his re-election campaigns. He is on a not too short list of deseredly unrecognized senators who have marched in lockstep with the Bush machine for the last 6 years, with neither distinction nor mention. It is reassuring to know that Idahoans (this is the first time in 22 years that anyone has bothered to find out what people from Idaho are called) will be served as well by his successor.

John Warner, on the other hand, by his announcement of retirement will free himself from any party loyalties to speak out against the Bush intransigence in Iraq. He is on the short list of current Republican senators who've been sufficiently independent of the president to be true contributors to the public discourse.

Posted by: charlesjacksonnyc | November 6, 2007 6:38 PM | Report abuse

So far, Rudy's slimy past has been left out of the debate because:
Neither McCain nor Romney has the "fire in the belly" to really go after him
They're still trying to achieve Reaganesque stature even though neither has an ounce of humanity
They don't realize that they can't make it on speeches and policies alone
They all show the voter connectivity of Al Gore
They've fallen all over themselves to avoid being viewed as mean-spirited; sort of a bunch of right-wing Mike Dukokases.
When a street fighter gets into the race, or when one of the well-financed candidates is ready to hire one and let him (or her, hopefully) work some magic, Rudy will be vulnerable on some issues which can hurt him with the true family-centered right (not the flag-wavers, but those who actually take family values seriously):
Families Values: How many families have he and Princess Judi destroyed in their quest for bliss
Out-Clintoning Bill: At least Bill didn't advertise Monica; Rudy and Judi still go on TV together to rub it in everyone's faces
The Ex-wives Club: They still haven't been heard from, but it's not likely to help. A few Jennifer Flowers style interviews will really distract and get him off-message
When this stuff really gets going, the former mayor will no doubt respond with his hot temper, and his temperature will shoot up, particularly when caught unprepared in one of the small, "friendly" meetings. One stringy-haired kid with a 200 mini-camcorder, or a blue-blood, blue-haired Republican matron with her new gee-wiz phone-camera is all that's needed for an intemperate response to bring out the true Rudy (remember George Allen and the " Macaca Moment").

Last night, in response to some moronic comment by the 3rd-tier anti-war guy (no one remembers his name 1/2 hr after the debate), Rudy jumped in with a not-very-Reagan angry, self-righteous response. It showed that he still may have a bit of TV problem; he was hot in a cool medium and blustery among a bunch of congenial, country-clubbers. Ultimately, it won't be the abortion issue itself that does him in, but rather his intrinsic and inherent nasty and offensive character.

Just give it time.

Posted by: charlesjacksonnyc | November 6, 2007 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Thank you mr. balz for pointing out the fact that the "abortion issue" is a non issue. What have the recent Republican presidents Ford , Reagan, Bush 1 , Bush 2 done on the issue. Nothing. It simply isn't a presidential matter.. As Rudy says it is a state issue. If the GOP wants nominate someone like Huckabee, Thompson or McCain who are good men , but unelectable, they are only guarenteeing that the socialists, wimps and appeasers will take power. Pelosi, Reid and Clinton will ruin the country. To many conservatives, particularly Northerners, these issues are not as important as Wealth redistribution( taxes and social programs) and National security where the FEDS can really cause a bunch of harm.

Posted by: d.dimaggio | November 6, 2007 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Your last name is balz. Huh huh.

Posted by: elric | November 6, 2007 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Your lies are no longer good enough.

Posted by: empty00eyes | November 6, 2007 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Just an addendum: the candidates suffered a "RITE of passage", NOT a "right of passage." Quite a different meaning.

Posted by: lhover | November 6, 2007 3:30 PM | Report abuse

" you mean to say that the issues dont matter to Republicans?

Posted by: xira | November 6, 2007 03:03 PM "

On the issue that matters most, Giuliani is one of them and they know it.

Posted by: zukermand | November 6, 2007 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Mr Balz neglects to mention the large share of republicans who are unaware of Giuliani's position and assume he is anti-abortion.

Giuliani's support has eroded steadily. Apparently, the more people see and hear him, the less they like him. This will be a problem for the already beleaguered GOP.

Posted by: zukermand | November 6, 2007 3:25 PM | Report abuse

The constitutional amendment to ban abortions debate is a bad barometer of social conservatism. The POTUS has no power to create such an amendment, and there are certainly not enough votes in Congress to even broach the subject.

The real question is whether or not the candidate supports federally funding abortions. Giuliani does and Thompson does not.

Posted by: bohuslav | November 6, 2007 3:22 PM | Report abuse

All those conservatives unenthusiastic about their choices could use a NO column on the ballot (and polls) and the highest net yes wins. They could vote no against a Dem candidate, helping their party win, without endorsing a GOP winner which apparently would reflect their feelings... and give that winner a strong message that they don't have a mandate for their positions. The same would hold true of Dems not sold on Hillary or whoever. The only ones who would not support a no column would be the politicians, who would hate the idea of being able to register disenchantment on the ballot. They only like voters to be able to say yes, never no.

Posted by: Valjean1 | November 6, 2007 3:21 PM | Report abuse

You won't be able to ignore Ron Paul for another entire year.

Posted by: baddog4784 | November 6, 2007 3:16 PM | Report abuse

"Giuliani's surprising strength owes much to his performance as a candidate,...and to perceptions that he may be the strongest candidate the Republicans can field in next year's general election." you mean to say that the issues dont matter to Republicans?

Posted by: xira | November 6, 2007 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Once again I am amazed, you mentioned: "What about some of the other candidates?", and yet left out those whom you need not mention? Did the primary happen already or did I miss something? Polls are still surveys, nothing more. Please include the other (at least, in the debate) canidates when trying to compare and contrast. I assume someone proof read this and said...take the Ron Paul blurb out.

Posted by: abramcookson | November 6, 2007 3:00 PM | Report abuse

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