Pro Life Could Kill The Gop's Chances In '96

After a 1992 Republican convention dominated by incendiary right-to-life rhetoric turned off voters in droves, political pros reckoned that the GOP would tread gingerly around the abortion issue in '96. Wrong. Far from playing down their hard-line stance, conservative Republicans in Congress are passing a raft of new abortion curbs. Cultural conservatives ranging from the Christian Coalition to former Education Secretary William J. Bennett couldn't be happier. But moderate Republicans fear another backlash next fall.

In an August blitz, House GOP leaders have tacked anti-abortion language onto five spending bills. Among them: an abortion ban at U.S. military facilities and for women raped in federal prison. The more moderate Senate voted on Aug. 5 to limit abortions covered by federal-employee health insurance. Shellshocked pro-choice activists concede many restrictions could become law. "It's an unprecedented assault--and we're losing," says Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League.

A SPLIT? The reason: Social conservatives who backed economic planks in the Contract With America say it's their turn. "These [abortion] votes are needed to reinforce the base," says GOP consultant Eddie Mahe Jr. The offensive is just beginning. House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) vows to push "as far as we can" to limit abortions.

But anti-abortion forces may pay a high price for victory. The bitter debate is threatening to split the conservative economic coalition that brought the GOP to power. Polls suggest that many professional women and socially moderate independents are turned off by religious conservatives' agenda. A survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press shows that just 34% of women--compared with 49% of men--approve of GOP policies. The Republicans' anti-abortion push, along with assaults on affirmative action and student loans, "will come back to haunt them," predicts independent Michigan pollster Edward V. Sarpolus.

PURITY IS KEY. That could damage the party's White House chances in '96. While President Clinton's ratings are stagnant, his pro-choice stance is one reason he's gaining on GOP rivals. Only two Republican candidates--Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter and California Governor Pete Wilson--favor abortion rights, but Wilson recently waffled and now backs restrictions. A Sarpolus poll in late July had Clinton's three-point lead over Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) growing to seven when voters are reminded of Dole's anti-abortion stance.

But pro-lifers--who dominate the GOP nominating process--care more about ideological purity than political gain. A huge majority of voters favor abortions for rape and incest victims, yet the House voted on Aug. 3 to let states cut off Medicaid funds in those cases. "The only thing worse than rape is abortion," thundered House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).

Such rhetoric may backfire, fret some. "It's the Trojan horse that could beat the party," warns Specter. But moderates such as New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman face an uphill battle to strip the '96 platform of a pledge to ban abortion. "I'm expecting the worst and hoping for the best," says Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.). "If our party is seen as intolerant, we're going to have serious problems."

But even if abortion curbs prove unpopular, GOP leaders see greater risks in vacillating. "If people catch you with your finger to the wind on an issue like abortion, you're dead meat," says Armey. The danger for Republicans is that the wind may be blowing the other way.