On abortion, candidates seek centrists

When Republican John McCain suggested his running mate could support abortion rights and Democrat Barack Obama gave a senator who opposes abortion a prime convention role, both were sending a subtle message to centrist voters.

Neither presidential candidate was signaling a seismic shift in the nation's debate over abortion rights. Still, their actions suggest that both parties sense that a large, if vaguely defined, group of Americans would like to see abortion vanish, but not by legal decree.

Polls consistently show that most Americans strongly dislike abortion yet do not want it outlawed in the early stages of pregnancy.

Democrats had it both ways in revising their party platform ahead of this month's convention in Denver. Platform-writers said the party “unequivocally” supports legalized abortion, a stronger phrase than the 2004 platform contained.

But they also bolstered the section on reducing the need for abortions. The version awaiting approval says the party “strongly supports access to comprehensive affordable family planning services and age-appropriate sex education.” It says the party “strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and postnatal health care, parenting skills, income support and caring adoption programs.”

Democratic officials also gave a convention speaking slot to Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who opposes abortion rights. His father, the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, was denied a coveted slot at the 1992 convention because of his opposition to abortion rights.

Meanwhile, McCain startled conservatives, and pleased some moderates, by suggesting he might pick a running mate who supports abortion rights, such as former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

Many Republicans were unsure what to make of McCain's remarks to the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, in which he said Ridge's pro-choice position would not rule him out as a running mate. While McCain said in 1999 that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, he otherwise has consistently opposed such rights.

Some conservative groups howled about McCain's comments. The American Family Association asked readers of its Web site what they would do if he had a pro-abortion-rights running mate. More than 5,000 people responded, with 37 percent saying they would vote for McCain as “the lesser of two evils.” One percent backed Obama, 16 percent said they would not vote and 46 percent said they would seriously consider a third-party candidate.