Sen. Bob Dole won over former archrival Patrick J. Buchanan with his firm statement against abortion. But Republican abortion-rights supporters said Friday that Dole’s call for tolerance was inadequate and raised the possibility of a floor fight at the party convention in August.
Dole, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, announced Thursday that he was affirming his support for the party platform’s ban on abortions but backed a “declaration for tolerance” that acknowledged GOP members disagree with his view. Buchanan said in a statement Friday that this was a victory because it upheld an “undiluted” abortion ban.
But Republicans who favor abortion rights, including Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and California Gov. Pete Wilson, wanted Dole to move much further than endorsing tolerance for disagreement. Indeed, some Republicans said Friday that support from the conservative Buchanan could backfire and hurt Dole’s effort to make much-needed headway with moderates.
Weld, who supported Dole only after Wilson dropped out of the race, said he wanted language in the party platform - which will be finalized at the convention - to be further modified.
“I intend to continue to fight for broader ‘big tent’ language which treats the pro-choice and pro-life positions equally in the platform, or for the removal of the abortion plank altogether,” Weld said Friday. “These approaches would appropriately send the message of tolerance that Senator Dole is talking about.
“I don’t think a throwaway line - ‘We understand some people disagree with this’ - would be sufficient,” Weld said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who has been leading the effort in Congress to convince Dole to moderate his position on abortion, said Dole’s move was not nearly enough. Moreover, she said unless Dole modifies his position, abortion-rights supporters would have no choice but to fight the issue on the convention floor.
“The fact is we are not going to be happy with it and not satisfied with it,” Snowe said. “If it does require us to have to engage in that fight, then we will have to. What choice does this leave us?” But Dole’s approach drew support from at least one of the big-state Republican governors who support abortion rights and recently pledged to fight the existing platform plank.
New York Gov. George Pataki said Dole “has taken a significant step to unify our party. … On the issue of abortion, I am pro-choice. Bob Dole has a different position, but with (his) statement, he has demonstrated that he respects and understands that people with differing opinions belong in the Republican Party.”
It remains to be seen whether the Republicans who favor abortion rights and who strongly support Dole will be willing in the end to wage a fight on the convention floor that would embarrass him. The Dole forces do not expect a fight.
The determination by Weld and others to continue to fight on the issue was clearly not what Dole had hoped for. Speaking to reporters in Nashville, Dole gave the impression he expected abortion would not be an issue at the Republican convention in San Diego this August.
“We’ve got to get it out of the convention,” Dole said. “We don’t want the convention dominated by the media talking about one issue.”
President Clinton, who believes his support of abortion rights gives him an advantage against Dole, said Friday he welcomed Dole’s move to “lower the rhetoric.”
But Clinton added: “The stark difference in our policies remain there. He is in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, and I am not.”
The Buchanan factor apparently played a significant role in Dole’s decision. While Buchanan controls only a small number of delegates, he showed during the 1992 convention that he has the capability of grabbing headlines and creating controversy. That has been especially true when it comes to abortion; Buchanan often charged during the primaries that Dole was not a strong enough foe of abortion.
So Dole, who wants the convention to focus on his life story and his selection of a running mate, was anxious to stop a fight between himself and Buchanan before the convention. At the very least, Dole appears to have accomplished that.
Buchanan, the conservative commentator, responded Friday not with his usual fiery speech but with a placid news release titled “Buchanan Welcomes Dole Statement.”
There was immediate speculation that Dole promised Buchanan a prime-time speaking slot in exchange for Buchanan’s backing, but a Buchanan spokesman said no such deal was made. The spokesman said Dole had not discussed the matter with Buchanan. Nelson Warfield, a Dole spokesman, said he couldn’t say whether a Dole associate had talked with Buchanan or someone from Buchanan’s camp.
Buchanan declined to give interviews or make a public statement Friday, leaving it to his aides to hand out the news release.
Buchanan, in his statement, portrayed Dole’s move Thursday as a victory for Buchananites. Buchanan’s aides stressed Dole was agreeing to leave the anti-abortion plank untouched, while inserting Dole’s declaration for tolerance only in the preamble of the platform.
“Sen. Dole’s declaration that he will ‘not seek or accept a retreat’ from the Republican Party’s pro-life plank, which calls for constitutional protection for the life of the unborn, in the party’s 1996 platform, is welcome news,” Buchanan said in the statement. Buchanan said he could support Dole’s call for “civility” in the discussion about abortion as long as the party had an “unalterable commitment to the right to life of the innocent unborn.”
But the big question Friday was whether Dole’s success in winning over Buchanan could backfire. After all, Dole’s strategists have said one of their main objectives is to position the Kansan as a moderate, which may not be helped by having Buchanan back Dole on abortion.
Some abortion rights activists said the most effective next step for Dole would be to select a running mate who supports abortion rights, something that Dole has not ruled out.
This sidebar appeared with the story: ABORTION POSITIONS GOP presidential contender Bob Dole and President Clinton on abortion:
DOLE Advocates adding a “declaration of tolerance” to GOP platform to make it clear that abortion rights supporters are welcome in the party. “I expect to run for president with the existing pro-life language from our 1992 platform and with the declaration of tolerance for divergent points of view on issues such as abortion.”
CLINTON Welcomed his Republican rival’s move, but stressed that there was still a “stark difference” between his position and Dole’s. “He is in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, and I am not. And so, there is a real difference there that I don’t think can be papered over.”