Republican political activists said Saturday that reports that Fred D. Thompson had lobbied to ease a controversial abortion restriction have cast a shadow on his effort to persuade social conservatives -- a key constituency in his emerging bid for the White House -- that he is an unwavering opponent of abortion.
Some Republican activists urged caution in evaluating Thompson’s record. Others considered it damaging for questions to arise about his position on abortion, a litmus-test issue for many social conservatives.
“That would not be helpful,” said Paul M. Weyrich, a conservative leader who has not endorsed a presidential candidate.
Evidence that Thompson worked for a family-planning group in 1991 as part of his little-known but extensive portfolio as a part-time lobbyist underscores how much the public has yet to learn about the former senator, who is best known for acting in movies and on TV, especially his role as a district attorney on the popular show “Law & Order.”
The article in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times cited records and the accounts of several people associated with the issue. It also said Thompson’s spokesman strongly denied Thompson had performed such lobbying work.
Some conservatives said the lobbying claims added to anxieties. Though the GOP has been unwavering in its opposition to abortion at least since President Reagan, the positions of its presidential front-runners appear to be less unequivocal.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani supports abortion rights. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is a recent convert to opposing abortion rights. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) opposes abortion but has never made that a central issue in his career.
“With all the people who keep changing their minds on abortion, that’s got to be unsettling,” Weyrich said.
The result is a GOP abortion debate lacking one thing that activists on both sides of the issue long for: certitude.
“People want to see clarity and consistency on this issue,” said Ted Miller, spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, which supports abortion rights.
A big question for Thompson, who is expected to declare his candidacy in the next week or two, is whether this will disillusion Republicans who have seen him as a white knight to rescue the party from candidates unpalatable to many conservatives.
“This will hurt, particularly because conservatives have been dying for a champion to be in the arena for them,” said David Carney, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist who is not aligned with any candidate. “A lot hoped he was the guy.... People who really believe in the pro-life cause will not be happy.”
As a Tennessee senator from December 1994 to January 2003, Thompson sided with antiabortion advocates on most key issues. That record has been a big reason conservatives have looked to him as an alternative to established GOP candidates.
But some critics have pointed to statements he made before becoming senator to suggest that he was sympathetic to abortion rights. Thompson has said that those statements were misconstrued and that he has become even more passionate in his abortion opposition since seeing the sonogram of his now-3-year-old daughter.
In 1991, according to several people then affiliated with the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Assn., he accepted an assignment from the association to lobby the White House to withdraw or relax a “gag rule” that barred abortion counseling at clinics that received federal money.
The minutes of a 1991 meeting -- given to The Times -- say the association’s president reported to the board that the association had hired him. And a Democratic colleague of Thompson’s at the lobbying and law firm also recalled Thompson having worked for the association.
Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo has adamantly denied that Thompson worked for the group. And the White House official whom the group was seeking to reach, then-Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, said Thompson didn’t lobby him.
Some Republicans argued that the account was politically motivated, noting it came from abortion-rights advocates with little affection for the GOP.
Thompson’s GOP rivals in the presidential contest seized on the account but declined to comment for the record.
“Each day that gets closer to Fred Thompson’s announcement as a candidate, we learn new information about his record and his career that shows he doesn’t have the conservative credentials that primary voters are looking for,” said a strategist for a rival.
However, a leading backer of Romney is more forgiving. Romney is himself asking voters to pay more attention to his current abortion opposition than to his past record.
Thompson “had a change of heart on the abortion issue,” said James Bopp Jr., an antiabortion leader. “This story is about something that happened in 1991. He’s walked through the burning embers, and there is no reason to think his change of heart was not sincere.”
Anne Hendershott, author of “The Politics of Abortion,” said the report would probably not hurt Thompson if antiabortion activists were pragmatic and focused on where he stood now, not on the position of a group he might have worked for 16 years ago: “Fred Thompson says he is pro-life now, and that is what is important to the pro-lifers.”
But the account is also a reminder that, although Thompson is positioning himself to run as an anti-establishment outsider, his resume is that of a consummate Washington insider.
“He wasn’t the conservative firebrand some are making him out to be now,” Carney said.
Times staff writer Mark Barabak contributed to this report.