Abortion, an issue used to rally political activists during the primaries but one that rarely presents a high profile during a general election campaign, has suddenly become the focus of a very public and personal spat in California's contest for governor.
Democratic nominee Gray Davis pushed the issue to the forefront when he began airing a statewide television ad touting his pro-choice stance--the first time in memory that a single-issue pitch has been made on the sensitive and polarizing subject.
Republican nominee Dan Lungren, smarting at what he considers a misrepresentation of his record in the Davis ad, responded over the weekend with an abortion ad of his own, even as he blamed Davis and reporters for stirring up the issue.
In his ad, Lungren accuses Davis of making a "personal" attack when Davis noted accurately--in his ad--that Lungren in Congress sponsored legislation that would have outlawed abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
Asked Sunday to explain what part of Davis' ad comprised a personal attack, Lungren refused.
"My ad stands for itself," the attorney general said.
Asked again to explain the reference, he retorted: "You can figure it out. I say it in there, and that's what I've said. My statement stands."
Lungren's campaign manager, David Puglia, said later that by bringing up the congressional vote, Davis was implying that Lungren does not now support allowing exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
"Gray Davis needed to be called on his misrepresentation of Dan Lungren's beliefs," Puglia said, a characterization sharply disputed by Davis' campaign.
The sudden focus on abortion reflects two simultaneous, if colliding, strategies in the governor's race: Each candidate believes that, in whole or in part, the abortion issue can be helpful to his chances of election. Davis, to guarantee his victory, needs the votes of young women, who are the most vociferous supporters of abortion rights but are not always the most dependable voters. Lungren has cast the issue as one in which strong personal beliefs and character come to the fore--a recurring theme in his campaign.
And the focus this year also underscores that abortion has not been a hot November issue for years, because the gubernatorial candidates were like-minded.
But this year, the differences are stark. Davis, the state's lieutenant governor, supports abortion rights. Lungren opposes them except in limited cases. Adding to the irony, both candidates this year are Catholics, which gives the abortion debate a personal coloration.
A new Los Angeles Times poll illustrated why each campaign believes that the issue could be beneficial.
Overall, the poll found that 59% of the state's registered voters still strongly support the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, which constitutionally protected abortion rights. That would seem to be helpful to Davis, as would the finding that 34% of registered voters said that Davis' stance on abortion made them more likely to vote for him in November. A smaller 23% said it made them less likely, so the issue in political terms was a plus for Davis.
But the poll also showed that an overwhelming majority of California voters would require minors to have parents' approval before undergoing abortions--a position held by Lungren and opposed by Davis.
Lungren has repeatedly sought in the campaign to play down the governor's power over the abortion issue, in effect placating Californians who disagree with him by asserting that he would have little ability to change the state's permissive laws.
Where he does claim a governor has power--and where he says he will actively pursue his antiabortion stance--are in the areas of taxpayer funding of abortions, parental notification and late-term abortion. In all three categories, polls have shown that voters share Lungren's position.
Until this week, when Davis and Lungren took to the air on the issue, it had been bandied about at candidate debates, but rarely seemed to inspire much public clamor.
The subject came up Sunday, however, when the candidates separately answered questions before several hundred Catholic lay leaders gathered at Loyola Marymount University.
As for the dust-up with Davis, Lungren's campaign released background information in which the attorney general claims that his co-sponsorship of the congressional Human Life Amendment, which did not allow exceptions like rape or incest, was an attempt "to get the debate started in Congress."
His suggestion that the vote was merely procedural echoes Davis' assertion that some anti-death penalty votes that he has cast were merely procedural. Lungren has cited the votes as evidence that Davis is not as strongly supportive of capital punishment as he is.
Lungren bristled when asked Sunday if the two excuses were similar.
"You're not going to get me into that," he said. "You folks want to continue making this an issue. He makes it an issue and those of you in the press keep making it an issue. I made my statement over and over and over in writing, and now I have it in my ad. I will stand on that."