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Abortion Issue a Plus for Davis

April 27, 2002|MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ENCINITAS, Calif. — The instant Donna Repp learned that Bill Simon Jr. opposes abortion rights, she all but ruled out voting for the Republican candidate for governor.

"I know that's too cut and dried for many people, but something about that just turns me off," said Repp, a Republican. "I don't care to listen any longer. I don't think I could vote for this man."

If Gov. Gray Davis has his way, voters like Repp will doom Simon's quest to bounce Davis from office.

The Democratic incumbent has made abortion rights a showcase issue in his reelection campaign. His aim is to undermine Simon among the moderates who dominate general elections--particularly women in suburban areas such as this prosperous oceanfront city north of San Diego.

Conversations with nearly three dozen Encinitas voters suggest why abortion remains a powerful issue for Davis to exploit.

In pressing the issue, the governor reminds abortion rights activists of his longtime support of their cause. But more broadly, among those who are not single-issue abortion voters, he uses it to suggest that Simon is out of touch with the values of voters at large.

"If you don't allow a woman her right to choose, you start from there and move down the list of rights they'd take away," said coffee shop waiter Scott Bertone, 30, an independent.

Davis, beset by weak public approval ratings, has sought to stir fears that as governor Simon would roll back abortion rights. He used the same tactic with great success in his 1998 campaign against Republican Dan Lungren, a staunch abortion rights opponent whom Davis defeated by 20 percentage points.

Simon, backed by the National Right to Life group's California chapter, has said he will respect current laws on abortion, but has declined to discuss the issue in detail other than to say he opposes abortion rights.

Though Simon insists that it's a closed issue in a state where about two out of three voters favor abortion rights, Davis has gone out of his way to emphasize the impact a governor can have, from judicial appointments to public money for contraception.

Colleen McNanie, 45, is one of the Encinitas Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for Davis in 1998, and she expects to do so again, in part because of his stand on abortion. She's a sports attorney's assistant who pulled up in a black BMW to a 7-Eleven on Pacific Coast Highway on her way to work.

"In this day and age, people have to give each other the credit and say it is your right to choose, not as a woman, but as a human being," she said. "If that's what Gray Davis is doing, I think that's a pretty good motivating thing."

When Davis is asked about Simon, abortion is typically the first topic he raises. The governor, however, avoids the emotionally charged word "abortion," instead saying that he supports "a woman's right to choose."

The carefully chosen phrase is meant to suggest to voters like retired teacher Linda Schooler, an independent, that more than abortion is at stake.

"There are a whole host of issues covered by a woman's right to choose," Schooler said while scouting for geraniums at an Encinitas nursery. "Minority rights. Gay rights. Protective rights of families in the workplace."

Davis' pitch doesn't always work. To Cathy Burns, a Democrat watching her two toddlers frolic on a park lawn, Davis "totally dropped the ball" on energy. She said she was "very strongly" in favor of abortion rights, but would vote for Simon and take a chance that he won't curb those rights.

"I'm hoping he doesn't have the authority to upset the apple cart too much," she said.

By party affiliation, Encinitas would seem a safe bet for Simon. Republicans outnumber Democrats by 40% to 34%. The city's mayor and its members of the Legislature and Congress are all Republicans.

Yet Encinitas has a history of backing centrist Democrats in state and national elections, among them Davis, Al Gore and Bill Clinton. All three have used abortion rights to gain support, particularly among moderate Republican women. Pete Wilson, the last Republican whom Encinitas backed for governor, also supported abortion rights.

The split political identity of Encinitas, a city of 58,000, is partly a reflection of its distinct neighborhoods, spread over 19 square miles of rolling hills on a spectacular stretch of coastline between Carlsbad and Del Mar.

On the oceanfront is Leucadia, a liberal enclave. Along the coast highway are surfboard shops, a tie-dyed T-shirt stand, art galleries and a trailer park. It's the part of town that Mayor Christy Guerin calls "funky." Leucadia is home to many of the city's 586 Green Party members.

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