In a direct slap to anti-abortion conservatives, Bob Dole said Monday he won’t rule out a pro-choice running mate.
“That may distress some people, but I am the nominee,” Dole said on NBC’s “Today” show.
Dole’s suggestion that he might pick someone who favors abortion rights touched off a furor among GOP conservatives and a new buzz that he was flirting with tapping New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman.
Whitman is pro-choice. Last week, Dole adviser Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., said picking Whitman or another pro-choice woman would put action behind Dole’s talk of tolerance.
When asked about Whitman’s prospects, Dole said he was “looking at a number of outstanding Republicans.” When pressed further on Whitman, he replied: “More on that later.”
In an earlier TV appearance on “Live With Regis & Kathie Lee,” Dole called the New Jersey governor “fantastic.”
On NBC, he said he would hope his running mate supported a ban on late-term abortions. Whitman does not - she supported President Clinton’s veto of the ban.
Still, Dole spoke of the “need to win the election” and seemed to suggest that a pro-choice running mate would help.
Conservatives were floored.
“It’s almost like he’s picking a fight with us,” said Brad Keena of the Free Congress Foundation.
For months, Dole has said his vice-presidential pick doesn’t have to oppose abortion, but that was seen partly as an overture to Colin Powell. Although the retired general seems to have slammed the door on a run, Dole is still going out of his way to say he’s open to a pro-choice running mate.
About a quarter of the delegates to the San Diego convention have vowed to walk out over a pro-choice running mate, Keena said.
Dole’s actions have seemed aimed at walking a difficult tightrope - convincing moderate voters that he is not in thrall to party conservatives while still keeping the party’s conservative positions sufficiently intact to avoid alienating core Republican voters.
“What I want to do is reach out to people,” Dole said. “The Republican Party, it is and should be, an inclusive party.”
Ann Stone, head of Republicans for Choice, said Dole’s remarks were “music to my ears.” She said Dole’s comments would go a long way toward quelling the biggest fear among moderate Republicans - that the former Kansas senator would be perceived as a “tool of extremists” in Congress.