The abortion controversy continued to shadow Bob Dole’s campaign Friday despite efforts by party officials to quiet the fires on the issue.
The former Kansas senator took heart, however, from two new polls that indicated he may be closing the gap with President Clinton.
The continued fissures within the party on abortion could be seen as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee campaigned at a GOP unity breakfast here. A supporter shook Dole’s hand and beseeched: “Please, don’t go moderate on abortion.”
“We’re not going moderate,” Dole replied before moving on. “We’re just trying not to keep anybody out.”
Late last week, Dole called for adding a “declaration for tolerance” to the party’s platform. Then on Monday, he declared that the tolerance language should be directly added to the platform’s language on abortion, rather than being placed elsewhere in the document. That position infuriated many antiabortion activists, who saw it as unfairly singling out their issue as a source of controversy.
At the time, Dole said the language of the platform was “my decision” and that he would insist on the party adopting his language.
A senior official said Friday the matter was now up to the party’s platform committee. “Bob Dole has made his statements, let his desires be known,” the official said. “Where it goes from here is largely up to platform committee.”
Friday also was Flag Day, and Dole took time out to excoriate flag burning and chastise Clinton on the issue.
“President Clinton has not supported a constitutional amendment protecting the flag,” he told a rally in Savannah, Ga. “I do. I do. I do.”
And he repeated his opposition to the administration’s proposals for additional regulation of tobacco.
Dole said he agrees on the need to keep cigarettes away from children, but added: “We know it’s not good for kids, but a lot of other things aren’t good. Drinking’s not good; some would say milk’s not good.”
On abortion, some Republican officials tried to quiet the current controversy within the party. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, warned GOP conservatives that it is “absurd” and “self-destructive” for them to continue “nit-picking” over Dole’s views rather than focusing on Clinton’s support for abortion.
In an interview published Friday by the conservative Washington Times, Gingrich strongly defended Dole’s lifelong antiabortion voting record and agreed with him that the GOP is “a large party that has room for Republicans who are pro-choice.”
“I hope every person involved who believes in right to life is going to take a deep breath, take a step back, look at the big picture, and decide that their commitment is to defeat Bill Clinton,” Gingrich said. “And to the degree that we get sucked into some internal fight, I think this is frankly just ultimately self-destructive.”
House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), similarly sought to downplay disagreement on abortion. “I really don’t understand what this flap is all about. Bob Dole is pro-life and has been, and nobody can question that,” Armey said in a CNN interview.
Some agree. At the unity breakfast, Rev. Mickey Kirkland, a Baptist minister, said he was untroubled by Dole’s call for tolerance.
“The Republican Party is not as narrow-minded as we are being made out to be,” he said. “This is a new breed of Republicans. A lot of us were kids of the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Others, however, are clearly not mollified. The militant antiabortion group Operation Rescue, for example, announced plans to be out in full force in San Diego the week before and during the Republican National Convention in August. Group members plan to stake out medical clinics where abortions are performed as well as the homes of doctors who perform them, the Rev. Flip Benham, national director of Operation Rescue, said Friday.
With abortion continuing to insinuate itself into his campaign, Dole showed a hint of annoyance when reporters asked whether he was doing anything to calm the waters.
“I think it’s calm,” he said, ". . . except on the [campaign] plane in the back,” where the press sits.
For the past two days of Dole’s first campaign outing as a retired senator, the abortion issue has cropped up at nearly every event. Signs and banners have met him at every stop and restive voters have pleaded their case between handshakes and autographs.
Dole has also faced criticism from Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the man he chose as chairman of the party’s platform committee.
Dole said he expects to meet with Hyde, a staunch abortion foe who has made no secret of his anger over Dole’s current position.
“We’ll meet with Henry Hyde next week some time,” Dole said. “Sit down and talk about it. He’s a good reasonable Republican.”
Dole seemed ebullient as he took note of a new Time Magazine/CNN poll that showed he has cut Clinton’s lead to 6 percentage points, with the president ahead 49% to 43%.
“We’re catching up,” Dole declared to a cheering crowd of several hundred at the rally in Savannah.
A U.S. News & World Report survey released Friday put the two candidates 13 points apart--Clinton 50% and Dole 37%. That result is more in line with polls taken by the two campaigns.
The poll results could indicate--as Republicans have claimed--that Dole has profited by his call for “tolerance” on abortion and by his departure from the Senate, and that Clinton has been hurt by several weeks of news about Whitewater as well as the controversy over White House officials improperly obtaining FBI files on Republican officials.
The polls do indicate that the race is more volatile--and voter attitudes less frozen in place--than many people have believed, Fred Steeper, a Republican pollster and Dole advisor, said.
Times staff writer Robert Shogan contributed to this story.