MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Wednesday he would allow his own daughter to decide whether she would have an abortion, then changed his position as he found himself plagued by the same issue that has haunted George W. Bush.
McCain, whose campaign hopes hinge on defeating Bush in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, was forced to spend part of his campaign day here clarifying his comments on the abortion question, saying he initially "misspoke." "What I believed I was saying and intended to say is that this is a family decision," McCain said. "The family decision would be made by the family, not by [his daughter, Meghan] alone. And other than that I believe that it is a private family matter."
Later, he was pressed on his answer during Wednesday evening's debate among the GOP presidential candidates. Alan L. Keyes, a fervent abortion foe, charged that even making such a decision a family matter "displayed a profound lack of understanding" on McCain's part of the primacy of a fetus' life.
McCain first noted his consistent record of anti-abortion votes in Congress, and then snapped at Keyes, "I will not draw my children into this discussion."
McCain has been forced to grapple with the divisive abortion issue several times this week, and some of his answers have been hesitant and confusing. Like Bush, McCain is opposed to abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is endangered. But like Bush, McCain has sought to downplay the importance of the issue, which tends to hurt the party among many swing voters. But their reticence has opened both to attacks from the other candidates in the GOP race--Keyes, Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer.
In the days leading up to Monday's Iowa caucuses, Forbes continually attacked Bush as insufficiently committed to the anti-abortion cause. Forbes, however, is not spotlighting abortion in his New Hampshire campaigning, given that the state's GOP voters are more moderate on the issue than Iowa's Republican caucus-goers.
Still, for the second consecutive day, questions about abortion hindered his efforts to deliver his preferred message to voters.
The imbroglio began when a reporter on board McCain's "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus asked him: "If your daughter, Meghan, got pregnant, and she said to you that having a baby right now at the age of 15 would be the worst experience of her life, she wasn't ready, she couldn't go through with it, would you tell her that she could not get an abortion?"
McCain responded: "No, I would discuss this issue with Cindy [McCain's wife] and Meghan and this would be a private decision that we would share within our family and not anyone else. Obviously, I would encourage her to know that that baby would be brought up in a warm and loving family. The final decision would be made by Meghan with our advice and counsel."
Several minutes later, after McCain had left the bus and was in his hotel room, he phoned in his clarification to the press contingent.
He stressed that the decision on an abortion would not be his daughter's alone, but would be reached in conjunction with him and his wife.
Later in the day, again on the campaign bus, the issue flared once more. And McCain grew heated as he was pressed on whether he was taking an abortion rights stance.
"I don't think it's the [pro-] choice position to say that my daughter and my wife and I will discuss something that is a family matter that we have to decide," he said. "I'm not going to talk about what I'm going to do with my daughter in the most personal and painful kind of a situation that I can imagine outside of a terminal illness."
The discussion reached a boiling point after a reporter inquired whether the rape and incest exceptions would apply to his daughter. "I will not discuss rape and incest. I will not put my daughter through this," McCain said.
On Tuesday, McCain said he would support changing the GOP platform to allow for abortions in the case of rape, incest or the health of the mother. Currently, the plank that calls for a ban on abortion does not make such exceptions.
Later, McCain clarified that he would not actively seek such a change.
Forbes, the father of five daughters, has said that if one became pregnant through a rape, he would urge her to have the child. When asked again Wednesday about his response, he said: "We are a loving family. We would urge her to bring it to term and assure her that we could raise it in a loving family atmosphere."
Bush has declined to answer the hypothetical abortion question about his twin daughters, scoffing at such queries as inappropriate. In Iowa, he was asked a slightly different version--what he would do if one of his relatives faced such a decision because of rape. "It would be up to her," he said, prompting charges that he was soft on abortion.
Bauer and Keyes both have indicated they would expect their daughters to give birth, regardless of a pregnancy's circumstances.
Times staff writer Anne Marie O'Connor with the Forbes campaign and researcher Massie Ritsch contributed to this story.