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Ellen McCormack dies at 84; antiabortion presidential candidate

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Ellen McCormack, a New York housewife who briefly became a national figure in American politics when she twice ran for president, in 1976 and 1980, in campaigns designed to galvanize the antiabortion movement, has died. She was 84.

McCormack died of congestive heart failure Sunday at an assisted-living facility in Avon, Conn., said a daughter, Kathy McCormack-Batterson.

In the 1976 Democratic presidential primary, McCormack made history twice. She was the first female candidate to receive Secret Service protection and to qualify for federal matching funds.

She wasn't running for herself, New York magazine reminded in 1976, but "as the embodiment of a total philosophical commitment to outlaw abortion."

"I'm in this to defend the unborn child," McCormack said upon entering the race. She invariably indentified herself as a housewife, a mother of four and a grandmother — and took umbrage when accused of running on a "one-plank platform."

"I am a candidate," McCormack, then 49, firmly told the Associated Press in 1976. "George McGovern was called a one-issue candidate because he was against the Vietnam War. Others have gotten into the race mainly on a single issue, but they had to respond to all issues."

The Pro-Life Action Committee that backed McCormack was a small group of mostly Catholic women on New York's Long Island that began as a book club with a political bent.

When the committee realized that matching funds could be used to make commercials with an antiabortion viewpoint, they persuaded McCormack to run. She ended up qualifying for more than $247,000 in federal financing.

Her presence in the first presidential election after Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that established abortion as a fundamental right, forced both major parties to address the abortion issue, according to the "Encyclopedia of Women in American Politics" (1999).

She also "played a major role in the rise of the pro-life movement," Phyllis Schlafly, a longtime antiabortion leader, wrote in a 2007 column on the Eagle Forum website. "Her leadership enabled the then-young pro-life movement to flex its muscles and demonstrate political courage."

McCormack appeared on the 1976 primary ballot in at least 18 states and captured 22 delegates at the Democratic National Convention that nominated Jimmy Carter.

Four years later, she ran for president as the candidate of the Right-to-Life Party. McCormack was on the primary ballot in only three states in 1980 and received about 32,320 votes.

Reflecting on her presidential runs, McCormack told Newsday in 1999: "It was an effort to educate people."

She was born Eleanor Rose Cullen on Sept. 15, 1926, in New York City to Irish immigrants William and Ellen Cullen. Her father worked for Consolidated Edison.

At a dance, she met Francis McCormack, a New York police officer who rose to deputy inspector. When he died in 1993, they had been married 44 years.

"One article from 1976 talked about how she would get her Irish up if she was not taken seriously. That was so typical of my mother," said her daughter Kathy. "Her beliefs, her fight for the unborn were truly her passion."

In addition to her daughter Kathy, McCormack is survived by two other daughters, Anne McCormack and Ellen Stapleton; a son, John; two sisters; 11 grandchildren; and four-great-grandchildren.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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