L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia bids to become the nation's first elected black governor and David N. Dinkins seeks distinction as New York's first black mayor in off-year voting Tuesday that will be watched for shifting sentiment on abortion as well as race.
In another abortion-tinged contest, Democratic Rep. James J. Florio is heavily favored to break an eight-year Republican hold on the governor's office in New Jersey.
The heightened concern over abortion stems from a Supreme Court ruling last summer permitting states to impose greater restrictions on women seeking to terminate their pregnancies, and already the two parties are debating the political fallout.
Ron Brown, chairman of the Democratic Party, said abortion has had an impact on the Virginia, New Jersey and New York races and added that Democratic candidates with their pro-choice views "are on the right side of the issue."
"I think (President) Bush has dug himself a big hole that he's going to be unable to extricate himself from. He is taking a lot of Republicans down with him," Brown said.
Countered GOP Chairman Lee Atwater, without referring to any individual GOP candidate, "Where you get into trouble on abortion is when you do not clearly define your position, when you appear to be all over the lot on it."
Atwater, who managed Bush's successful 1988 campaign, noted that Bush's opposition to abortion did not damage him last year.
In other balloting Tuesday, 11 candidates are vying to replace Rep. Mickey Leland of Texas, killed last summer in a plane crash in Ethiopia.
The line-up of big city elections includes Detroit, where 71-year-old Democrat Coleman Young seeks a fifth term, and Cleveland, where Democrats George Forbes and Michael White are staging a bare-knuckled political brawl for city hall.
John C. Daniels is favored to win office as the first black mayor in mostly white New Haven, Conn., while Norm Rice is out for the same honor in Seattle against Republican Norm Jewett.
In a campaign prelude to 1990 elections with 34 Senate seats, 36 governorships and 435 House seats, abortion has become a prominent issue.
"The issue was cooler before" the Supreme Court's ruling, Atwater said, but added: "I maintain it is not going to be a national driving issue in 1990. It's going to be an issue on a race-by-race basis."
Bush has campaigned personally for GOP candidates J. Marshall Coleman in Virginia, Rudolph Giuliani in New York and Rep. Jim Courter in New Jersey, including a swing into New Jersey and Virginia on Friday. He talked of drugs, crime and other "challenges of tomorrow" but steered clear of abortion.
Nowhere is abortion more clearly--or more surprisingly--an issue than Virginia, where race was scarcely a factor until the campaign's final days.
Wilder challenged a decade of political wisdom by taking the offensive with commercials on abortion on television, where pro-choice and right-to-life groups have both spent heavily on commercials as well. The issue has spilled over to at least one other race.
Wilder launched television commercials more than a month ago, telling women that Coleman wanted to "take away your right to choose. . . . He wants to go back to outlawing abortion, even in cases of rape and incest."
Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political scientist, said Wilder's approach permitted him to gain support from voters who oppose government intervention in their lives and combine "the anti-government conservatism with his liberal base."
Coleman declined to respond at first, instead charging his Democratic rival with trying to "spread fear."
But Wilder surged to a lead in public opinion polls within a few weeks, leaving Coleman, a former attorney general who lost a gubernatorial bid eight years ago, to play catch-up in the final weeks of the race. He hit back with commercials questioning Wilder's suitability to serve, and on Friday, raised the issue of race by implication when he said Wilder was benefiting from a "double standard" in press coverage.
Abortion has surfaced in greater and smaller degrees in other races:
* Courter has softened his anti-abortion position in New Jersey and thus alienated the National Right to Life Committee, which hasn't given him its backing. Democrat Florio has a solid pro-choice position.
* Giuliani softened his position as well in the New York race, arousing the ire of Roman Catholic Cardinal John J. O'Connor. The GOP candidate issued a clarification last summer that said he accepted a woman's right to choose and would oppose making abortion illegal.
* The issue spilled over to the lieutenant governor's race in Virginia, where Republican Edy Dalton aired a television commercial saying she was in favor of a woman's right to choose--in cases of rape and incest.
* OFF-YEAR DELUGE
Absentee ballots flood Orange County registrar's office. A1