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NEWS ANALYSIS : Parties Seek Abortion Issue's Middle Ground : Campaign: Bush and Clinton want to avoid charges of waffling, but neither wants to appear an extremist.

July 26, 1992|DAVID LAUTER and DOUGLAS JEHL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Even as political strategists for both parties continue to buzz over Vice President Dan Quayle's recent comments on abortion, the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns quietly have tried to shift toward the center of this emotional and divisive issue.

The parallel moves help show how Ross Perot's departure from the race has changed the calculations of both parties. The tentative nature of the shifts also underlines the political dangers President Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton continue to face from the abortion issue.

Those dangers should be on full display this week if, as expected, the Senate begins debate on the proposed Freedom of Choice Act, a bill designed to lock the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision into statutory law and to set nationwide rules on how much states may restrict abortions.

Bush has vowed to veto the bill if it passes Congress, and Democrats hope that will further rally abortion rights supporters to their side.

Republican strategists, for their part, hope to focus public attention on questions such as whether the bill would allow states to impose waiting periods before women obtain abortions or whether teen-age girls should be required to get the permission of their parents before having an abortion. Their goal is to portray Democratic supporters of abortion rights as "abortion on demand" extremists.

The debate could pose problems for Bush and Clinton in part because advocates on both sides view each man with some suspicion.

Anti-abortion activists remember that Bush took a stand in favor of abortion rights until 1980, when he switched sides and became Ronald Reagan's running mate. Many continue to watch Bush's moves, looking for signs of backsliding.

Clinton, meanwhile, did not take a strong abortion rights stance as Arkansas' governor, preferring to avoid the issue as much as possible. His often repeated statement that he thinks "abortion should be safe, legal and rare" probably captures the sentiments of a majority of Americans but made many abortion rights advocates nervous.

In addition to the questions about their beliefs on the specific issue, both Clinton and Bush face a more general set of doubts about their credibility. Bush opponents scorn him as a President who has no strong core beliefs; Clinton through much of the current campaign has struggled to rid himself of the "Slick Willie" label.

As a result, both men need to worry about any overt sign of waffling on the issue. But as a senior Bush campaign official recently put it--in words similar to those used by Clinton strategists--with Perot gone, "We have no choice but to begin looking toward the middle."

Both candidates' moves have involved symbol and rhetoric rather than any substantive changes in their positions.

Bush, for instance, has decided to feature some prominent Republican abortion rights supporters at the party's convention next month.

Clinton has sought to mend fences with abortion foes within his party, most notably Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey. And he has been careful in recent statements to emphasize, as he said in his acceptance speech, that "I am pro choice, not pro abortion."

The complex nature of the abortion issue was illustrated last week when Quayle, during an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live," answered a hypothetical question by saying he would reluctantly support his daughter if, as an adult, she decided to have an abortion. The comment caused confusion over whether the vice president was moderating his previous strong opposition to abortion; he ultimately stressed that it did not.

And even while Perot was still in the race, the Bush and Clinton campaigns were split on how to handle the controversies that swirl around the abortion question.

Late last month, as the Supreme Court prepared to issue its ruling on the Pennsylvania abortion law that imposed several restrictions on access to abortions, senior White House officials prepared a response in which Bush hailed the expected decision as a step toward overturning Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a woman's right to an abortion.

An all-but-final version was ready the morning of June 29, when the court issued its decision upholding virtually all aspects of the Pennsylvania law. But before that statement was released, politics intervened, according to Bush campaign and White House officials.

Accompanying Bush on a campaign trip in New York City, Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner and White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater huddled behind closed doors and wondered whether the statement might be too strong for an election year. Already, Robert M. Teeter, the poll-conscious chairman of Bush's reelection campaign, had reminded GOP strategists that three in four Americans disapprove of overturning Roe.

As reporters and television crews paced the hallways of a New York hotel awaiting the White House statement, Skinner consulted by telephone with Teeter in Washington, a source said.

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