Rudy Giuliani, clearly uncomfortable with his performance at the first presidential debate of 2008, has elected to jettison the soft pedal on abortion. It wasn't working. He sounded incoherent or indecisive or dodgy -- not the traits the hero of 9/11 wanted to project.
So he has embarked on the risky, but arguably unavoidable, strategy of forthrightness. Speaking in Huntsville, Ala., the former mayor of New York declared that "Ultimately, there has to be a right to choose" on abortion -- the opening gambit of what The New York Times reports is a new direction for his campaign. From now on he will be frank about his pro-choice views and hazard the consequences.
It makes the mind reel to consider that the Republican Party, resolutely pro-life since 1980, could nominate a pro-choice candidate. But this is a peculiar year. Wars have a way of eclipsing other issues, and many Republican voters are more concerned about the grisly plans of jihadists worldwide than anything else.
Some conservatives and Republicans are worried that the president's low approval ratings will damage the Republican "brand" in 2008. This concern was carried into the Oval Office on May 9 when 11 "moderate" Republican members of Congress warned the president that time was running out for progress on Iraq. The more panicky Republican voters become about 2008, the better for Giuliani, right?
Perhaps. A great deal of the energy in Republican primaries has traditionally come from pro-life and traditional values conservatives. On the other hand, exit polls in 2000 showed that among Republican primary voters, abortion ranked fifth among issues important to voters (at 6 percent). In 1996, it ranked fourth. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll reveals that only 23 percent of those leaning Republican say they could not vote for Giuliani because of his stands on abortion and gay rights. That leaves 77 percent who could.
How that will play out in a state like Iowa, which requires organization and inspired volunteers, is not clear. The Des Moines Register's David Yepsen notes that Giuliani has not done the kind of small-scale, one-on-one events political activists in the state have come to expect. "He gives big speeches and races out of town," Yepsen says. Giuliani may be guessing that with the front-loaded primary schedule next year, the small contests in Iowa (Jan. 14) and New Hampshire (Jan. 22) may not matter as much and that his time would be better spent in the big states that have scheduled early primaries like Florida (Jan. 29), and New York, California, New Jersey, Arizona and others on Feb. 5.
The Republican primary voter -- assuming that the field of top candidates does not change -- is faced with no perfect options when it comes to the life issue. Mitt Romney's recent embrace of the pro-life label is not entirely convincing. As a candidate for the U.S. senate in 1994, Romney boasted that there was no difference between his position on abortion and his opponent's (Teddy Kennedy). When he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, Romney promised to leave the state's liberal abortion laws untouched.
Now Romney urges voters to believe that "In considering the issue of embryo cloning and embryo farming, I saw where the harsh logic of abortion can lead -- to the view of innocent new life as nothing more than research material or a commodity to be exploited." Okaaaay. Maybe it was the philosophical insight that the soul is immanent in the human form at all stages of development, or maybe it was the imminence of the Republican primaries. Who knows? Just recently we learned that Mrs. Romney (like the Giulianis) has contributed to Planned Parenthood.
Not even John McCain can boast an utterly unblemished record on life. In 2000, when asked what he would do if his daughter were considering an abortion, McCain replied that he would convene a "family conference." In 1999 he told the San Francisco Chronicle, "I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women to undergo dangerous and illegal operations." He clarified the next day, explaining that he has always supported the repeal of Roe. And he points to a 25- year record of pro-life votes in Congress. On the debit side, he supports using embryos for stem cell research.
Inchoate candidate Fred Thompson once filled out a questionnaire to the effect that he favored legalized abortion in the first trimester, but he now stands staunchly against abortion.
So there we are -- no perfect options.
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