CongressNow: Candidate Could Face Conservative Backlash

Posted August 29, 2008 at 9:30am

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and GOP conservatives could be headed for a clash at the convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul this week over his support of hot-button social issues, but such a dispute could help him win independent and swing voters this fall.

Candi Wolff, President Bush’s former chief adviser on legislative affairs, said McCain needs to “walk the line of making sure conservatives understand his position [on abortion and stem cell research] without over- highlighting them so as not to lose independents.”

McCain has never had close ties to the party’s social-conservative wing. His prickly relationship with the right was laid bare in 2000 when he went out of his way to criticize conservative religious leaders during his failed presidential campaign. In recent months, McCain has sought to mend ties with GOP social conservatives and has even picked up the support of some of the religious leaders he once openly bashed.

Nonetheless, on the campaign trail McCain has infrequently talked about key social issues such as abortion, stem cell research and restrictions on gay marriage. He also infuriated conservatives by briefly floating the idea of naming a running mate who supports abortion rights, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R).

The McCain campaign declined to comment for this story.

However, his Web site does make clear that McCain would support a ban on abortion: “Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned,” it says. Instead, McCain wants the abortion issue to be decided on a state-by-state basis.

McCain opposes the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes — a key issue for social conservatives who believe creation begins at the point of conception. But McCain also angered some social conservatives by supporting legislation in 2007 that allows for research on stem cells created for fertility treatments but are not used.

The Republican Party platform holds firm in strong opposition to abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage. Still, Wolff said, McCain will need to work behind the scenes with conservative activists at the convention to show he truly backs those views to ensure voters turn out in the fall.

McCain “needs to step up the rhetoric and reassure” his base, said David Nammo, executive director of Family Research Council Action.

Groups that support abortion rights are also planning to highlight McCain’s opposition to abortion at the convention with an eye toward independent and female voters. “Regardless of who raises these issues, these issues are going to be raised,” Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards said.

Abortion-rights groups say that many voters do not understand McCain’s position on abortion, believing that since he has bucked the Republican Party on other issues, he may be more supportive of a woman’s right to an abortion.

Political observers and anti-abortion groups are split over whether the issues will be a key factor in the general election.

Wolff said, “People are focused on pocketbook issues right now.” Also, social issues are not the ones that independents focus on, she said. Roy Ramthun, another former Bush aide, agreed. “I haven’t seen any mention of [these issues] in recent times.”

Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life said if McCain adopts a strong anti-abortion stance it could help attract Democrats who oppose abortion, particularly Catholic voters. She said anti-abortion groups are planning to publicize Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) support of abortion rights.

Democrats are taking steps to tone done the party’s long-term support of abortion rights.

At last week’s convention, the party, while still backing a woman’s right to abortion, adopted a platform saying more support is needed for women who decide to have a child rather than end a pregnancy. A party official said the language was adopted after discussions with faith leaders and abortion-rights women’s groups.

The platform states that the Democratic Party “strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.”

More symbolically, Democrats gave anti-abortion Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) a speaking slot at the convention. In 1992, Democrats declined to allow Casey’s father, who was then Pennsylvania’s governor, to speak at their convention because he opposed abortion rights.