Must a GOP presidential candidate be pro-life to win the party's nomination?
Rudy Giuliani is betting the answer to that question is "not anymore" -- at least not in a crowded and divided GOP field, where Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney (not to mention 9 zillion minor candidates) split the pro-life vote. Rudy's supporters take heart from national polls that continue to show him leading the GOP field, despite several very public abortion controversies.
But if the latest Gallup Poll is any indication, that may be the wrong question. The real question is: Can a pro-choice GOP candidate win the general election?
Turn the conventional wisdom on its head, and the problem for Rudy may not be getting the nomination (we'll see about that) but putting together a winning national coalition without the support of committed pro-life voters.
What's the problem? In the first place, the latest Gallup Poll confirms that the "pro-choice" brand has lost a lot of its power with the general public. As recently as 1995, the American public strongly preferred the "pro-choice" over the "pro-life" label, 56 percent to 33 percent. Over the last 10 years, the partial-birth abortion debate appears to have changed the public's perceptions dramatically. In the Gallup Poll taken May 10-13, 49 percent of Americans call themselves "pro-choice" compared to 45 percent of Americans who identify themselves as "pro-life." Almost six in 10 Americans say they think abortion should be legal in only a few instances (40 percent) or illegal in all cases (18 percent).
In a separate recent poll conducted by Ayres McHenry Associates for the Ethics and Public Policy center, a majority of Americans still say they support Roe v. Wade. However, when voters are informed about all the different abortion restrictions and regulations that Roe prevents states from passing, Americans' support for the Supreme Court decision drops substantially.
Gallup asked: "Thinking about how the abortion issue might affect your vote for major offices, would you -- only vote for a candidate who shares your views on abortion? Or consider a candidate's position on abortion as just one of many important factors? Or not see abortion as a major issue?"
Almost a quarter of pro-life Republicans say they will not vote for a candidate who does not share their views on abortion compared to just 8 percent of pro-choice Republicans. In a 50-50 nation, with public support for the war in Iraq evaporating, can a GOP candidate have a prayer of victory without their vote?
Democrats have come to see that in the heartland, neutralizing the GOP advantage on abortion is key to Democrat victory -- think Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa). 2008 will be a hard year for Republicans. There is no particular reason to think the rest of Rudy's platform -- support for the war in Iraq, fudging on immigration reform, "leadership" -- will pull these pro-life voters to the polls in spite of his pro-choice label.
Oh, and that nomination thing? That also may not be a cakewalk. The Des Moines Register reports that a new poll of likely caucus-goers released this Sunday shows Mitt Romney taking an impressive lead with 30 percent, and Rudy slipping into third place (17 percent) behind McCain (18 percent). In New Hampshire, a May 15 Zogby poll shows Romney poll-vaulting to a 16 percentage-point lead, with 35 percent favoring the former Massachusetts governor, compared to just 19 percent each for Giuliani and McCain.