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Dole Pledges to Keep Contested Abortion Ban in GOP Platform

By Blaine Harden and Dan Balz
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole categorically stated his support Thursday for a constitutional amendment banning abortion that is contained in the Republican Party's platform. At the same time, however, he said he wants a "declaration of tolerance" within the platform to welcome those with differing views.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who has been saying for weeks that he wants to make the party more inclusive for those with divergent views on abortion, said in a statement late today that he "will not seek or accept a retreat" from the 1992 Republican Party platform.

"Our convention must reflect not only our strong pro-life convictions, but a decent regard for the opinions of those who disagree," Dole said. "This is not compromise, it is civility."

In his statement Thursday, Dole seems to be trying to square a circle. He is attempting to welcome moderates who support abortion rights, while at the same time insisting that the ban cannot be abandoned or in any way weakened.

Dole sought both to clarify his own position and to head off a costly fight at the Republican convention in San Diego, but it was not immediately clear from Thursday's statement, as well from comments Dole made in television interviews, whether he would be successful.

"Just as important as the wording in our platform," Dole said in the statement, "is the spirit we carry into this election. I will stand up for my beliefs with confidence, but I will not silence those who disagree."

The 1992 platform plank on abortion contained no language recognizing that there were differing points within the party on abortion. In 1980, the abortion plank did explicitly recognize such differing points of view.

Dole campaign aides Thursday night issued conflicting interpretations of how the declaration of tolerance would be dealt with in the platform. This seemingly arcane point is of great importance to the anti-abortion wing of the party. Some leaders of the movement have said they would not accept such language as part of the abortion plank.

Nelson Warfield, Dole's press secretary, said "Sen. Dole's statement indicated that there are a number of issues where Republicans of goodwill may disagree. But it remains to be seen precisely where in the platform that committee will decide to include a declaration of tolerance."

But another senior Dole advisor said suggestions that Dole wanted to replicate the 1980 abortion plank is "not what he is talking about here." He said the Dole campaign was not trying to "say specifically" what the platform committee should do. But he said Dole is seeking "an umbrella modifier" and not urging "specific language in a specific plank."

In an interview on ABC, Dole appeared to be softening his stance on the party's position on abortion.

"We hope to have a plank in our platform that will reach out to all Republicans so everybody will understand we can have diversity in our party and still reach out to people who have different views," Dole said. "I don't want to build a fence around our party and say everybody has to agree with me on this issue."

Later Thursday, apparently trying to head off news reports that Dole was backing away from the abortion ban in order to broaden his party's electoral base, Dole campaign headquarters circulated the no-retreat statement.

Early last month, a major battle over the antiabortion plank was fought among the conservative members of the Republican Party. Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, suggested a revision of the language that would replace a constitutional ban on abortion with a statement of policy that pledges to "seek by all legal and constitutional means to protect the right to life for the elderly, the inform, the unborn, and the disabled."

But this language proved unacceptable to many antiabortion leaders, including GOP presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan and anti-abortion organizations such as the American Life League.

Trailing by about 20 points behind President Clinton in most national polls, Dole is under intense pressure to broaden his appeal, particularly in key states such as California and New Jersey, where moderates such as Govs. Pete Wilson and Christine Todd Whitman are insisting that the GOP is out of step with the mainstream of the Republican Party.