In a campaign tactic that carries clear political risks, Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis raised the highly emotional issue of abortion Thursday to draw attention to his pro-choice views.
And speaking with new-found passion, Dukakis also compared the conduct of Republican operatives in rival George Bush’s presidential campaign to the dirty tricks in Richard M. Nixon’s White House during the Watergate era.
“Truth was the first casualty in the Nixon White House and it has been the first casualty in the Bush campaign,” Dukakis told several hundred supporters at the Southern New England Telephone Co. office here.
Largely Female Audience
Although he did not use the word “abortion,” Dukakis’ five-sentence reference to the issue stood out in a speech, focusing on family values, to a largely female audience.
The Massachusetts governor criticized Vice President Bush, who opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger.
“Mr. Bush wants the government to make one of the most personal choices any woman can make,” he said. “I believe a choice that personal must be made by a woman in the exercise of her own conscience and religious beliefs.”
As his audience cheered, he said: “I think that is a personal choice for her.” He did not say, as he has in the past when asked, that he is personally opposed to abortion.
Abortion is a sensitive topic in any political campaign. Four years ago, for example, angry anti-abortion protesters dogged Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro and the issue was central to the campaign.
Anti-abortion protesters have not been as numerous or as disruptive this year, but small groups of demonstrators with graphic signs and props are a staple at most Dukakis rallies. About a dozen showed up Wednesday night in Columbia, Mo., for example, including a man on stilts wearing a dark cape and a skeleton mask and waving a blood-red doll.
During the candidates’ first debate Sept. 25, Bush acknowledged that he had not “sorted out” what penalties women should face if abortions were outlawed again. The next morning, Bush’s campaign chairman, James A. Baker III, quickly announced that Bush did not favor criminal penalties in such instances, however.
No Change in Policy
Although Dukakis’ statement reflected no change in his policy, he has not cited the issue or argued his position publicly unless he was asked in a question-and-answer session.
Aides said he decided to use the issue after women who watched the two debates in “focus groups” gave him positive marks for his pro-choice position.
“There’s a pro-choice constituency out there that we don’t want to alienate,” one aide said. “Women as a whole want to hear more and some of the key swing voters are women.”
Dukakis did not refer to abortion later during a rally in an Italian-American neighborhood in New Haven, his only other stop in the heavily Roman Catholic state.
Nor did he refer to it during remarks at the annual Alfred E. Smith dinner, whose host was New York’s Cardinal John J. O’Connor, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan. Bush also attended the white-tie affair.
Honors Late Governor
The charity dinner honors Smith, the late New York governor and unsuccessful Democratic presidential nominee in 1928. Both parties’ presidential candidates are invited every four years.
In his New Haven speech, Dukakis also stepped up his attack on misleading Republican advertising, particularly a series of brochures and flyers that have been distributed to voters in Illinois, Texas, Florida, Tennessee and other states.
Putting aside his text, Dukakis drew the Watergate scandal into the 1988 race by noting that Robert H. Bork, the unsuccessful Supreme Court nominee, played a key role in the “Saturday night massacre,” 15 years ago this week, in which the first Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was fired.
“The presidential campaign should inform voters, not mislead them,” Dukakis said. " . . . above all, the truth should matter a lot in a presidential campaign because, as we learned in Watergate, it matters a lot in the Oval Office.”
During the afternoon, Dukakis taped a five-minute TV commercial to be broadcast Saturday evening. Aides said the ad would help him reach voters without being filtered by the news media.
And after months of avoiding national TV interviews, Dukakis is scheduled to appear this morning on two of the three commercial network morning news programs, and ABC News announced that he would appear for 90 minutes on the “Nightline” program Tuesday. (See Calendar, Page 29.)
Dukakis’ aides hope that such appearances will help draw a contrast with Bush, who they maintain has been seen by the public only in tightly controlled situations. The vice president turned down an invitation to appear on Nightline with Dukakis.