LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Unofficial Republican presidential nominee John McCain insisted Wednesday that he had not yet picked a running mate, even as he was confronted here by conservative voters worried that he would select someone who favored abortion rights.
McCain's back-and-forth with voters at New Mexico State University came as Republicans released a schedule for next month's national convention that gives prominent slots to abortion rights proponents, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, keynote speaker and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
The speaker lineup was aimed at attracting moderates and independents into McCain's camp, but it seemed destined to add fuel to the fight already smoldering over abortion rights.
The Arizona senator has been a consistent opponent of abortion rights in Congress, but he has never been fully embraced by social conservatives because of his deviation from party orthodoxy on other issues.
The abortion issue flared last week when McCain told the Weekly Standard that he would not rule out as a running mate former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who favors abortion rights.
McCain has since been trying to shore up his conservative credentials -- insisting at a Saturday forum at Saddleback Church in Orange County that he would be a "pro-life president" and that a McCain presidency "will have pro-life policies."
At a town hall meeting Wednesday in Las Cruces, Republican voter Sandy Gaupel asked McCain about the abortion issue -- explaining in an interview afterward that she wanted personal reassurance from McCain that he would not pick Ridge or Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, who is now an independent.
"I've heard a rumor that you're going to pick a pro-life VP -- is that true?" Gaupel asked McCain.
McCain told the audience he would not discuss the selection process but said he was proud of his "pro-life record in Congress."
"I respect the views of others," he said, adding that he believed "life applies to those that are not born as well as those that are born."
Midway through the town hall meeting, another voter broached the topic. "In the past, you've alienated a great deal of conservatives, who believe that conservative principles are always the answer, by stepping across the aisle," the man told McCain. "Are you going to pick a vice president that conservatives can actually rally around in the future, or are you going to give us someone who will cause us to want to stay home perhaps?"
McCain did not answer the question directly -- saying instead that polls indicate he's "doing very well with the base" and that he would try to energize conservatives concerned about national security and fiscal responsibility in Washington.
"I will nominate a person to be vice president, my running mate, who shares my principles, my values and my priorities, and that's the best that I can tell you," McCain said.
In an early morning interview with conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham, who urged McCain to choose an abortion rights opponent, the senator said he had not yet made a decision about his running mate.
"We're in the process, and if I say anything more than that, I guarantee you there'll be another one of these firestorms," he said.
The Republican convention schedule released Wednesday gives high-profile spots on the opening night, Monday, Sept. 1, to Lieberman and Schwarzenegger, along with Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush.
Tuesday's schedule features a keynote address by Giuliani and a speech by Ridge, along with governors and senators from several states.
On Wednesday, the as-yet-unnamed vice presidential nominee will speak, and on Thursday, McCain's acceptance address will close the convention.
In a conference call organized by the campaign, Giuliani predicted that the party would rally around McCain's vice presidential choice regardless of his or her views on abortion rights.
"Any choice he makes for vice president will have pros and cons," Giuliani said.
He said the GOP was "not, as far as I can tell, a one-issue party. That would be just one issue among many that would have to be evaluated by the party."
"He'll select the person who is best," Giuliani continued. "If that person happens to be pro-choice, the party will support that. . . . I believe we're going to unite."