In GOP Race, Blurring the Lines in the Abortion Debate
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.
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