Abortion row comes back to bedevil Dole

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The Independent Online
By caving in to his party's social conservatives on abortion, Bob Dole has increased, rather than diminished, the risk that next week's nominating convention in San Diego could be thrown into turmoil by a public floor fight between pro-choice and pro-life Republican delegates.

After months of insisting on a special "tolerance" clause in the convention platform's section dealing with abortion, the Dole campaign on Monday bowed to the religious right, which controls swathes of the party apparatus, and settled for an anodyne formulation that talks merely of "deeply held and sometimes differing views" on a range of social issues, without specifying abortion.

As in every election since the 1960s therefore, the Republicans will fight the autumn campaign committed to amending the Constitution to guarantee the right to life, excluding abortions even in cases of rape, incest or where the mother's life is in danger, where Mr Dole himself would like exceptions to be made.

But hardly had the deal been struck than rebellion by the pro-choice faction began against what it believes is another misstep in a mistake- strewn campaign, which can only alienate the moderate and centrist voters which their candidate must win over to have a chance of capturing the White House.

Three of the most prominent Republican governors - William Weld of Massachusetts, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and Pete Wilson of California - all pro-choice, announced a drive to assemble the support of six individual state delegations needed to bring a platform issue to the floor when the convention opens on Monday. The abortion plank was "lop-sided," Mr Weld said, and "neither reflects what the true majority of Republicans believe, nor does a thing to increase our electability".

Abortion has long divided Republicans but never so raucously or so bitterly as now - and with such potentially disastrous consequences. The reasons are two. One is the candidacy-cum-crusade of Pat Buchanan, who in 1996 has made abortion and social issues his centrepiece, rather than the protectionist themes of 1992. The other is the ever-growing power of the religious right, which now controls Republican organisations in several states, including Texas.

An illustration of the trend could come as early as today on Mr Dole's home turf of Kansas, with the results of primary elections to pick Republican candidates to run for the state's two US Senate seats, being vacated by himself and Nancy Kassebaum.

Sheila Frahm, the pro-choice appointee to replace Mr Dole when he left the Senate in June to concentrate full-time on campaigning, is in particular trouble. Despite an early lead and the backing of the Kansas party establishment, she is trailing state representative Sam Brownback, a fiercely pro-life conservative.

Ralph Reed, director of the Christian Coalition and a key leader of the movement, professed himself "absolutely thrilled" by Monday's victory. But it may prove to have been bought at the cost of still more votes of women, who already prefer President Bill Clinton to Mr Dole by an almost two-to-one margin.

Ann Stone, head of the Republicans for Choice group, warned yesterday that this week's events suggested Mr Dole had less clout in the party than the religious right: "And Bob Dole can't afford to have that message come across: either he's in charge or they are."

The same point was being made by a gleeful White House, savouring more ammunition to portray the Republicans as rabidly extremist. "Tolerance went out of the window in favour of Pat Buchanan and [televangelist] Pat Robertson," a Clinton aide declared, "and that's frightening." Far less binding than a British party manifesto, the Republican platform as such will be quickly forgotten once the convention is over - but not its harsh language on abortion.