Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Fred Thompson was well into a prolonged dialogue about abortion with interviewer Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday when he said something stunning for social conservatives: "I do not think it is a wise thing to criminalize young girls and perhaps their parents as aiders and abettors." He then went further: "You can't have a [federal] law" that "would take young, young girls . . . and say, basically, we're going to put them in jail."

Those comments sent e-mails flying across the country reflecting astonishment and rage by pro-life Republicans who had turned to Thompson as their best presidential bet for 2008. No anti-abortion legislation ever has proposed criminal penalties against women having abortions, much less their parents. Jailing women is a spurious issue raised by abortion rights activists. Russert did not bring it up in his questioning. What Thompson said could be expected from NARAL.

Thompson's comments revealed astounding lack of sensitivity about the abortion issue. He surely anticipated that Russert would cite Thompson's record favoring state's rights on abortion. Whether the candidate just blurted out what he said or planned it, in either case it reflects failure to realize how much his chances for the presidential nomination depend on social conservatives.

Thompson was a former senator working as television actor when on "Fox News Sunday" March 11 he made himself available for president. I started to take him seriously a month later when a religious conservative activist (call her Miss Jones because she works for a non-partisan organization) surprised me by telling me she favored Thompson to fill a void among announced presidential hopefuls. She complained that no first-tier candidate -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney or John McCain -- fit her model and that overt social conservatives -- Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback -- could not be nominated.

I discovered broad support in April for Thompson among social conservatives, who were impressed by his 100 percent pro-life voting record during eight Senate years and could find fault only with his support for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill. As of Sunday, Thompson was still first in polls of conservatives by Human Events and American Values.

After Thompson's unannounced candidacy got off to a shaky start, I checked again with Miss Jones shortly after Labor Day to see whether she had changed her mind. No, she still supported Thompson, though she seemed less enthusiastic than she had been five months earlier. But Sunday's "Meet the Press" changed everything. "It was the last straw," Miss Jones told me. "I'm outraged and so are a lot of other people."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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