Dole attempts to end party's abortion feud

With his presidential candidacy still stumbling, Senator Bob Dole has set forward a compromise to patch up the Republican feud over the critical issue of abortion. But the first signs yesterday were that he had failed to satisfy either pro-life conservatives or pro-choice moderates.

In a carefully worded statement designed to defuse an argument which could wreck this summer's nominating convention, Mr Dole said he wants to retain the plank which has been in the Republican platform since 1980, supporting an amendment to the constitution making abortion illegal. But as a matter of "civility", he urged, the party must show "a decent regard for the opinions of those who disagree".

With that formula, the presumptive nominee hopes to prevent a spectacle which would surely doom his White House prospects - an ill-tempered public brawl in San Diego pitting prominent party moderates against the hardline social conservative Republican wing, led by the former commentator Pat Buchanan.

"Let me be very clear: no one will be turned away from our convention because they do not agree with me on these issues," said Mr Dole, who is opposed to abortion but with an intensity often deemed insufficient by the Christian right and other pro-life activists.

This faction reacted with some suspicion yesterday as Ralph Reed, the leader of the Christian Coalition, warned that he would resist any attempt to place any language conciliatory to the pro-choice camp alongside the demand for a constitutional amendment. And Mr Reed warned Mr Dole would face massive protest if he picked a vice-presidential candidate who favoured abortion rights.

That alone would rule out the two possible running mates who would give Mr Dole the biggest lift - retired General Colin Powell and Governor Christine Whitman of New Jersey - as well as other popular figures from the centre such as Governors William Weld of Massachusetts and Pete Wilson of California. All of them maintain that the anti-abortion clause should simply be excluded from the platform altogether, and Mr Wilson said yesterday that Mr Dole had not gone far enough in the search for a "realistic and relevant" stance on abortion.

By moving now, however, the outgoing Senate majority leader hopes at least to have secured time to quell any mutiny before the convention, the party's last and greatest set piece opportunity to showcase its policies before the election on 5 November. And with the campaign's dynamic still running in the President's favour, there is scant margin for error.

Despite the tumult in political Washington over the recent Whitewater guilty verdicts, Mr Bill Clinton's standing in the polls has not been affected. He continues to lead Mr Dole by 15 or 20 points in most polls, and though a growing number consider he and his wife are hiding something, only one in six Americans believes Whitewater to be a "very important" matter and few deem the candidates' "character" a decisive factor in the forthcoming vote.

That proportion may increase in the next few weeks, as Republicans sitting on the Senate Whitewater committee deliver what will be a scathing report on the affair, and a new trial begins in Little Rock on 17 June, in which Mr Clinton has again been subpoenaed to give video-taped testimony. Most menacing of all is the investigation of the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, and the possibility - to put it no higher - of further indictments of people close to the President.

Most importantly, perhaps, the economy is voting for Mr Clinton. Yesterday's news of 348,000 new jobs in May is further proof that solid growth continues.

Above and beyond the rhetorical skirmishing over a balanced budget, the figures show that under this administration the deficit has halved, from $290bn (pounds 190bn) in 1992 to a forecast $145bn in 1996.

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