As Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain compete for centrist voters in their presidential race, both parties have made intriguing nods to the political center on the emotional issue of abortion.
McCain has suggested his running mate could support abortion rights, and Obama gave an anti-abortion senator a prime convention role.
Neither presidential candidate was signaling a seismic shift in the nation's long-running if largely static debate over abortion rights. Still, their actions suggest that both political parties sense that a large, if vaguely defined, middle group of Americans would like to see abortion vanish, but not by legal decree.
Polls consistently show that most Americans strongly dislike abortion yet do not want it outlawed in the early stages of pregnancy.
Having it both ways
Democrats had it both ways in revising their party platform ahead of this month's nominating convention in Denver. Platform-writers said the party "unequivocally" supports legalized abortion, a stronger phrase than the 2004 platform contained.
But they also bolstered the section on reducing the need for abortions. The version awaiting approval in Denver says the party "strongly supports access to comprehensive affordable family planning services and age-appropriate sex education." It says the party "strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and postnatal health care, parenting skills, income support and caring adoption programs."
Democratic officials also gave a convention speaking slot to Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a Pennsylvania Democrat who opposes abortion rights. His father, the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, was denied a coveted slot at the 1992 convention because of his opposition to abortion rights.
Meanwhile, McCain startled conservatives this week, and pleased some moderates, by suggesting he might pick a running mate who supports abortion rights, such as former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
Many Republicans were unsure what to make of McCain's remarks to the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, in which he said Ridge's pro-choice position would not rule him out as a running mate. While McCain said in 1999 that Roe v. Wade — the landmark Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion — should not be overturned, he otherwise has consistently opposed such rights.
He repeatedly has voted against federal funding for abortion and has opposed federal Medicaid funds for abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.
Some conservative groups howled about McCain's comments this week. The American Family Association asked readers of its Web site what they would do if he had a pro-abortion-rights running mate. More than 5,000 people responded, with 37 percent saying they would vote for McCain as "the lesser of two evils." One percent backed Obama, 16 percent said they would not vote and 46 percent said they would seriously consider a third-party candidate.
When McCain stopped by Saturday to greet cheering campaign volunteers who were phoning voters in Irvine, California, one woman held a sign saying: "Pro-choice is No-choice for V.P."
Some less dogmatic conservatives are open to the idea, however. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and a frequent guest on McCain's campaign plane, said he opposes legalized abortion but thinks McCain is wise to consider running mates who differ.
"Our party needs to be open-minded" about such a choice, Graham said in an interview this week on the plane. Parties that rigidly support or oppose abortion rights, he said, "are out of sync with where most Americans are."
On the Democratic front, the revised convention platform language was hailed this week by some Republicans who are backing Obama.
Douglas Kmiec, a former Reagan administration official and Roman Catholic, said the new language moves the debate beyond the "legal dead end and a moral dead end" of being for or against Roe v. Wade.
"What this does, most importantly, is to commit the Democratic Party to supply real support for the child, for the woman facing this question," said Kmiec, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University.
Kmiec, who opposes abortion, said no political party platform fits exactly with Catholic teaching. "We pursue the art of the possible, and if we move to protect even a single life, we've done a good thing," he said.