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CAMPAIGN 2000

Pill Decision Pulls Campaign Spotlight to Muted Issue

September 29, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

The federal decision approving the RU-486 abortion pill swung attention to an issue little discussed in the presidential campaign, despite the two major candidates' widely divergent views. Texas Gov. George W. Bush issued a statement condemning the Food and Drug Administration's approval, while Vice President Al Gore praised the agency.

"I fear that making this abortion pill widespread will make abortions more and more common, rather than more and more rare," said Bush, the Republican nominee, who favors an abortion ban except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life.

"As president, I will work to build a culture that respects life," Bush said.

Gore, the Democratic nominee and a supporter of legalized abortion, insisted the FDA's decision was "not about politics, but the health and safety of American women and a woman's fundamental right to choose."

"I do not think that it ought to be kept away from women for some political reason," Gore said later, in a Thursday night appearance on "Larry King Live."

Gore and his wife, Tipper, appeared on King's show two nights after Bush and his wife, Laura, were interviewed. The vice president said abortions can be reduced through family planning, education and contraception but the right to choose the procedure is "up to the woman."

Despite Gore's statement eschewing partisanship, it is all but impossible to avoid politics in an election year, particularly on an issue as contentious and emotionally charged as abortion.

Bush has soft-pedaled his stance as he attempts to reach out to women and moderate voters. But Thursday's decision placed the issue--for one day at least--front and center.

While polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans favor abortion rights, with restrictions, the surveys also suggest that relatively few vote on that issue alone.

And those single-issue voters tend to negate one another, as the controversy over legalized abortion draws relatively equal numbers of "pro" and "con" voters to the polls.

"Most people don't wake up every day wondering, 'Should I have an abortion?,' " said Allan Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based GOP strategist.

"They're worried about their children, about education, about Social Security and their elderly parents. There's nothing to suggest [the abortion issue] is going to be determinative of who's going to win and who's going to lose this election."

Ed Sarpolus, a nonpartisan pollster in the closely fought state of Michigan, agreed. He said his surveys show that independent female voters--the crucial swing group in this election--"are not as worried about abortion as they are about the upbringing of their kids and education."

Sarpolus suggested, however, that the topicality of the abortion issue could make it more likely to come up in Tuesday night's first presidential debate. "To me, it's more a debate topic than something on the minds of many voters."

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