When Al Gore and George W. Bush appeared on rival network news shows Sunday, both found themselves fending off questions about that most troublesome of political issues: abortion.
Mr. Gore, on NBC's ``Meet the Press,'' had some awkward moments in explaining why he dropped his opposition to federal funding of abortions more than a decade ago and why he opposed requiring parental consent of abortions for minors.
``You need to let that be worked out in the context of a woman's right to choose,'' the vice president finally said.
Mr. Bush, on ABC's ``This Week,'' deftly sidestepped questions about whether he needs to appease religious conservatives who insist that he pick a running mate opposed to abortion.
``I'm going to pick somebody who can be president of the United States and somebody with whom I can get along,'' the Texas governor replied. But he added, ``Obviously, issues matter.''
Mr. Gore is unlikely to get much heat on his position from fellow Democrats. Though some oppose his and the party's support of abortion rights, they recognize there is no chance of changing a position that most Democrats support.
Mr. Bush, however, faces the likelihood that, despite his best efforts to mute party divisions on this issue, he still will have to deal with it in two areas as he takes command of the GOP for the fall campaign.
The first is the party platform, where Mr. Bush already has passed the word that he wants to retain the plank that calls for a constitutional amendment to bar abortions and for making the issue a litmus test in picking federal judges (Mr. Bush has said he opposes such a litmus test).
The second is in his choice of a running mate, which, regardless of how deft he is in parrying questions about it, inevitably will be seen in part as indicating the degree to which Mr. Bush feels he must accommodate the party's anti-abortion forces.
Leaders of those Republicans who favor abortion rights - who believe they represent a majority of GOP voters - already have suggested they would be satisfied with easing or eliminating the existing plank or with selecting an abortion rights supporter for vice president.
``Our constituency likes divided government,'' Ann Stone, who heads Republicans for Choice, said last month. ``They're very happy to have the Republican Congress control the purse and have a Democratic president choose Supreme Court justices.
``So you've got to do something dramatic that shows our guys he means what he says about being open and inclusive and (having) no litmus tests,'' she added.
For now, Ms. Stone said this week, the group is working to change the platform. She added that the committee chairman, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, has promised fair treatment for abortion rights backers when the panel meets in Philadelphia at the end of next week.
Their goal is to get enough support for changes so that, if they fail to get enough votes in the platform committee, they can use the threat of a floor fight to force changes. That takes either 27 members of the platform committee or a majority of six state delegations; at present, she said the issue may be open in more than 14 states.
As for the vice-presidential nomination, Ms. Stone said she believes that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, remains a possibility despite fierce opposition from some religious conservatives.
But Mr. Bush wants a tranquil convention. Some of the religious conservatives already have warned him that he will suffer politically if he picks an abortion rights backer such as Mr. Ridge, even though he opposes late-term procedures and favors such restrictions as a parental consent requirement.
A counter opinion was expressed by former President Gerald Ford, who argued that selection of an abortion rights supporter would help Mr. Bush regain the moderate votes the GOP has lost in the last two elections.
As for abortion foes, Mr. Ford said in a weekend interview with the New York Daily News, ``Where are they gonna go? If the choice is Gore or Bush, they won't stay home.''
Democrats would be delighted if Mr. Bush made the so-called safe choice of an abortion rights foe like Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. They think that, with Mr. Ridge on the GOP ticket, Mr. Bush is virtually assured of carrying Pennsylvania but that, without him, they still have a shot at it.
Until recently, the Texas governor has seemed far enough ahead that it might not matter. After all, vice presidents rarely do. But if the race tightens any further, Mr. Bush might have cause to regret having made the ``safe'' choice.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.
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