NEWS ANALYSIS : Parties Seek Abortion Issue's Middle Ground : Campaign: Bush and Clinton want to avoid charges of waffling, but neither wants to appear an extremist.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Even as political strategists for both parties continue to buzz over Vice President Dan Quayle's recent comments on abortion, the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns quietly have tried to shift toward the center of this emotional and divisive issue.

The parallel moves help show how Ross Perot's departure from the race has changed the calculations of both parties. The tentative nature of the shifts also underlines the political dangers President Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton continue to face from the abortion issue.

Those dangers should be on full display this week if, as expected, the Senate begins debate on the proposed Freedom of Choice Act, a bill designed to lock the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision into statutory law and to set nationwide rules on how much states may restrict abortions.

Bush has vowed to veto the bill if it passes Congress, and Democrats hope that will further rally abortion rights supporters to their side.

Republican strategists, for their part, hope to focus public attention on questions such as whether the bill would allow states to impose waiting periods before women obtain abortions or whether teen-age girls should be required to get the permission of their parents before having an abortion. Their goal is to portray Democratic supporters of abortion rights as "abortion on demand" extremists.

The debate could pose problems for Bush and Clinton in part because advocates on both sides view each man with some suspicion.

Anti-abortion activists remember that Bush took a stand in favor of abortion rights until 1980, when he switched sides and became Ronald Reagan's running mate. Many continue to watch Bush's moves, looking for signs of backsliding.

Clinton, meanwhile, did not take a strong abortion rights stance as Arkansas' governor, preferring to avoid the issue as much as possible. His often repeated statement that he thinks "abortion should be safe, legal and rare" probably captures the sentiments of a majority of Americans but made many abortion rights advocates nervous.

In addition to the questions about their beliefs on the specific issue, both Clinton and Bush face a more general set of doubts about their credibility. Bush opponents scorn him as a President who has no strong core beliefs; Clinton through much of the current campaign has struggled to rid himself of the "Slick Willie" label.

As a result, both men need to worry about any overt sign of waffling on the issue. But as a senior Bush campaign official recently put it--in words similar to those used by Clinton strategists--with Perot gone, "We have no choice but to begin looking toward the middle."

Both candidates' moves have involved symbol and rhetoric rather than any substantive changes in their positions.

Bush, for instance, has decided to feature some prominent Republican abortion rights supporters at the party's convention next month.

Clinton has sought to mend fences with abortion foes within his party, most notably Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey. And he has been careful in recent statements to emphasize, as he said in his acceptance speech, that "I am pro choice, not pro abortion."

The complex nature of the abortion issue was illustrated last week when Quayle, during an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live," answered a hypothetical question by saying he would reluctantly support his daughter if, as an adult, she decided to have an abortion. The comment caused confusion over whether the vice president was moderating his previous strong opposition to abortion; he ultimately stressed that it did not.

And even while Perot was still in the race, the Bush and Clinton campaigns were split on how to handle the controversies that swirl around the abortion question.

Late last month, as the Supreme Court prepared to issue its ruling on the Pennsylvania abortion law that imposed several restrictions on access to abortions, senior White House officials prepared a response in which Bush hailed the expected decision as a step toward overturning Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a woman's right to an abortion.

An all-but-final version was ready the morning of June 29, when the court issued its decision upholding virtually all aspects of the Pennsylvania law. But before that statement was released, politics intervened, according to Bush campaign and White House officials.

Accompanying Bush on a campaign trip in New York City, Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner and White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater huddled behind closed doors and wondered whether the statement might be too strong for an election year. Already, Robert M. Teeter, the poll-conscious chairman of Bush's reelection campaign, had reminded GOP strategists that three in four Americans disapprove of overturning Roe.

As reporters and television crews paced the hallways of a New York hotel awaiting the White House statement, Skinner consulted by telephone with Teeter in Washington, a source said.

The result was a rewritten statement in which Bush said that "my own position on abortion is well-known and remains unchanged." No mention was made of Roe.

More often, Bush has sided with strong abortion opponents within his circle of advisers, and he had additional incentive to do so when Perot's candidacy loomed. Perot supports abortion rights, meaning he and Clinton would be vying for those votes.

And so Bush vetoed a bill to fund health research because it would have allowed research using fetal tissue. He also instructed his aides to squelch any talk of changing the Republican's hard-line anti-abortion platform.

Clinton, meanwhile, had an incentive to try to prove he was more solidly in favor of abortion rights than Perot. The day after the court ruled on the Pennsylvania law, for example, Clinton appeared at a rally sponsored by the National Abortion Rights Action League.

In a two-person race, however, the dynamics have changed.

Bush aides plan to fend off any attempt to change the platform either from abortion rights supporters or from delegates loyal to conservative insurgent Patrick J. Buchanan, who would like to make the anti-abortion language even tougher.

But the Bush camp is proceeding with plans to feature several prominent Republican abortion rights advocates at the convention, such as Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld. Another abortion rights supporter, Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, has been tapped to formally place Bush's name in nomination.

Bush advisers hope the presence of Martin, Weld and others on the platform will reassure Republicans who differ with the President's anti-abortion stand that there is still a role for them in the party.

"We are where we are on (the issue)," a senior Bush strategist said. "But that doesn't mean we're going to be running around screaming about it."

Added another campaign official: "You can be sure we're not going to rub it in people's faces."

The Republicans would prefer to try to focus attention on Bush's support for the kinds of restrictions included in the Pennsylvania law, which aides say they believe are supported by a majority of voters.

"To the extent that we go to the center," one campaign official said, "it will be to talk about reasonable and rational restrictions, because that's where America is."

The Democrats, by contrast, would like to avoid talking much about specific restrictions and instead focus the debate on the root question of whether states should once again have the authority to make most abortions illegal.

At the same time, Clinton is especially eager to repair strained relations with Pennsylvania Gov. Casey, whose state is widely regarded as one the Democratic ticket must carry in November to win.

During the Democratic convention, Clinton forces refused to give Casey a forum for him to air his opposition to abortion rights because he had not endorsed the ticket. But convention officials prominently featured six Republican women--chosen by abortion rights advocates--who publicly endorsed Clinton over the abortion issue. In a move senior Clinton aides now concede was a serious error, one of the women was a well-known Pennsylvania Republican who had worked for Casey's opponent when he ran for reelection two years ago.

The incident enraged Casey and angered Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), a close Clinton ally, who confronted Clinton campaign chairman Mickey Kantor.

"It was really bad; you don't humiliate a governor like that," one senior Clinton adviser said.

In another sign of his bid to move to the middle on the abortion issue, Clinton took pains to show empathy--without abandoning his own position--with the views of opponents of abortion rights who shadowed his campaign's recent eight-state bus trip.

In McKeesport, Pa., for example, a woman rose to speak during an outdoor public meeting Clinton held. Explaining that she had become pregnant six years ago and given birth to a son with birth defects who was now the joy of her life, the woman said she was raised to believe that only God had the right to create or terminate life. She asked: "By whose authority do you say you can be pro choice?"

Clinton responded: "The issue is not whether you or anybody else in this crowd believes that abortion is always wrong. The issue is when should the government make a woman and her doctor a criminal. In a democracy, not everything that is wrong can be made criminal. People have to really believe more or less in unison that something is wrong for that to be a crime."

Noting the "enormous differences" among Americans in their beliefs about when human life begins, he added that "when you've got the American people split right down the middle about something like that, I believe that the proper thing to do is let the American people argue it out with conscience. But I don't think you should use the criminal law. That's what pro choice means to me."

Times staff writer Cathleen Decker contributed to this story.

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