Gov. Pete Wilson's sputtering presidential campaign found itself on the defensive again Wednesday, as staff members sought to explain an apparent softening in his pledge to try to remove anti-abortion language from the Republican Party's national platform.
Wilson faced protests from abortion rights advocates and one of his GOP presidential rivals after his chief campaign strategist said of the anti-abortion plank which, in varying forms, the party has endorsed at its last four conventions: "We'll let it go forward."
Campaign officials worked to explain the governor's position Wednesday, saying Wilson plans to oppose the plank when the GOP convenes its national convention in San Diego in August, 1996. But they added that he will drop his effort if it threatens Republican unity in the general election.
"The governor believes very strongly that the plank ought to be taken out of the platform," spokesman Dan Schnur said. "But at a certain point . . . the efforts to unify the party have to take precedence."
Wilson's decision to back away from a divisive convention fight is a departure from the signals that he has sent to abortion rights supporters over the last several years.
Connie Friedman, a Los Angeles-area member of the moderate California Republican League, said the shift is "a major, major disappointment."
She added: "We think he's done an incredible job. But we look to him to also be our philosophical leader and to get this out of the platform."
The anti-abortion plank in the GOP's 1992 platform says, in part: "We believe the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed. We therefore reaffirm our support for a human life amendment to the Constitution."
Wilson first promised abortion rights supporters that he would join the fight to remove the plank from the 1996 platform in a speech that he gave to delegates attending the 1992 Republican convention in Houston. At that time, Wilson helped persuade abortion rights advocates to avoid a battle over the plank by promising them that they would have their way in four years.
"I fully expect and intend that this will be the last Republican platform that contains this plank," the governor said then.
Wilson also said in an interview with The Times earlier this year that he would stick to his pledge to try to remove the anti-abortion plank from the party platform--and indicated that he would do so even if it did lead to an intraparty debate.
"Are you still going to try to get out of the platform . . . the pro-life plank you talked about?" the governor was asked during a Feb. 17 interview in his Capitol office.
"I still think that makes sense," Wilson responded.
"To get it out of there?"
"Yes, I think that is frankly an area in which the government ought not to be involved," Wilson said.
The governor was then asked: "How do you [take] the abortion plank out of the platform without raising the whole debate again . . . without stirring up" problems?
"Well, obviously there will be a debate about it," he said. "But I think that, you know, that the position of its not being in there is in itself a middle ground between a strong pro-choice statement and a strong pro-life statement. I think that there are a lot of people . . . who are conscientiously pro-life who really think that this debate is deservedly losing some steam."
But in comments earlier this week, the chairman of Wilson's presidential campaign portrayed a candidate planning to concede the issue. Even if he wins the GOP nomination, Craig Fuller said in an interview published by the Washington Post on Wednesday, Wilson would not try to impose his views on the platform writers.
"We'll let it go forward," Fuller said of the anti-abortion plank. "Pete Wilson will run on the issues he's articulated. Any differences with the platform will not affect his campaign. . . . I'm not suggesting he would take a walk. I'm saying we don't have to fight to the end on every platform issue. There's not that much in it for us."
Wilson's campaign has been dogged by a series of problems lately. The governor is still unable to speak in public after minor throat surgery more than two months ago. As a result, his fund raising has been hampered. On another issue, he was forced to explain the hiring of an illegal immigrant maid about 15 years ago.
Fuller's comment triggered another brief but troubling controversy. Perhaps most damaging to Wilson is the disappointment it caused among abortion rights groups that have counted him on their side.
Marcela Howell, executive director of the California Abortion Rights Action League, said Wilson has been a dedicated supporter on the issue, but he appeared to be softening his position to mollify religious conservatives. "I believe it is a change from his past position, and it may have more to do with the fact that the Christian Coalition now owns the party," she said.
Some GOP moderates said they are not surprised by Wilson's shift, particularly because the governor has always been a pragmatic politician not known for fighting uphill battles on principle. They said his decision is consistent with his presidential campaign strategy to emphasize conservative Republican issues.
"I don't think he's brave on the issue, but I don't think he's wrong to not pitch the battle at the convention," said one GOP abortion rights activist. "No candidate wants to pick a fight that they're going to lose."
The latest flap presented an opportunity that was quickly seized by the one GOP presidential candidate making the strongest pitch to Republican moderates. Hours after Fuller's quote was published, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter dashed to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday and blasted Wilson for capitulating to conservatives.
"I am really more in sorrow than in anger to see Pete Wilson desert us on this of all things," Specter said. "Because I think this is a fight that can be won at the convention if we are prepared to make it a fight. And I think all pro-choice Republicans have to band together and go to the mat on this one."