DENVER — Facing their best opportunity to control both branches of state government in 40 years, Colorado Democrats are coming to terms with the fact that their candidate for governor, Bill Ritter, opposes abortion.
Some activists spent the last six months searching for a candidate who supports abortion rights to challenge Ritter, a former Denver district attorney, in the Democratic primary. Denver's iconoclastic mayor, John W. Hickenlooper, bowed out after months of wavering, despite an e-mail campaign promoting him by NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado. Abortion rights backers pinned their hopes on Gary Lindstrom, an obscure state legislator who last month declined to run.
That left Ritter as the default Democratic candidate. Term limits prevent Republican Gov. Bill Owens from seeking reelection, and the two Republicans vying to succeed him also oppose abortion.
Local abortion rights activists are despondent. "Do you want to run for governor?" Kathryn Wittneben, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, asked a reporter. "Are you pro-choice? If you're pro-choice, you could run."
Ritter joins the party's candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, Bob Casey Jr., and the highest-ranking Democratic politician in the country, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, as prominent examples of anti-abortion Democrats.
In the face of activists' angst, Ritter's official stance on abortion remains unclear, demonstrating the tightrope that avowed antiabortion Democrats walk.
Though he says on his campaign website that he's personally opposed to abortion, Ritter can sound like a traditional abortion rights candidate. His website says that he would not criminalize the procedure and that he wants to fund Planned Parenthood and provide emergency contraception and sex education to prevent unwanted pregnancies. That contrasts with Owens, who has cut funding for Planned Parenthood and vetoed bills providing emergency contraception in hospitals.
Phillip Hendrix, a director of Colorado Right to Life, said that Ritter as Denver district attorney never went after abortion clinics that committed crimes. "I find it more than ironic -- I find it atrocious and somewhat sad that he calls himself pro-life," Hendrix said. He did acknowledge, however, that Ritter's stance made it difficult for Ritter's own party to accept him.
"He certainly is caught in between two hard spots," Hendrix said.
Ritter declined an interview. His spokesman, Evan Dreyer, said the candidate did not fit into the neat, polarized categories of the abortion debate.
"Bill is striving for common ground ... reducing the number of unintended pregnancies, getting to a place where there are fewer and fewer and fewer abortions," Dreyer said. "One of the great things about campaigning is you get to define and redefine yourself, and that's what Bill Ritter is doing right now."
Some analysts say Ritter's stance on abortion may work to his political advantage. "It's his Sister Souljah moment," Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli said, referring to President Clinton's chastisement of a militant black rapper during the 1992 presidential race. "That wing of the party has been identified as extreme. The fact that he is independent of it is an asset in this state."
Though Colorado has long been a liberal state on abortion -- in 1967, it was the first state to legalize the procedure to preserve the health of the mother -- it also has a history of favoring mavericks.
Ritter leads his likely Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, in early polls. Beauprez is locked in a primary battle with Marc Holtzman, a businessman. Both Republicans oppose abortion rights.
Although President Bush won Colorado in 2004, Democrats retook both chambers of its Legislature. They convinced voters last year to narrowly pass a pair of ballot measures ending the state's longtime spending cap. And, with the governor's mansion up for grabs, the party is increasingly hopeful of controlling both wings of government for the first time since the 1960s.
With that goal in sight, Democrats have increasingly rallied behind Ritter. Some of his supporters do not hide their frustration at the belated support.
"It's a testament to how out of touch the leadership of the Democratic Party in Colorado is," said Susan Barnes-Gelt, a former Denver City Council member with a long history of working for the state party. "The Democrats have made a huge mistake letting themselves be identified as a single-issue party, and that issue is choice."
Some experts believe polarization over abortion will continue, especially considering that Bush has appointed two Supreme Court justices who raise doubts about the future of Roe vs. Wade. Reversal of the landmark abortion rights case would send the issue back to legislatures and would increase pressure on governors to decide whether to allow abortions.
"Each party's base is becoming more polarized," said Alan I. Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta who follows abortion politics. "If you go back to the 1970s and 1980s, there were quite a few pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans. That's been changing."
Colorado abortion rights activists, though glad that Ritter backs emergency contraception, say they still worry.
"It's sad," said Crystal Clinkenbeard, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. "There's not going to be a pro-choice [candidate for] governor for people to support."