Could The Election Come Down To Abortion?

A few months ago, abortion was hardly on the radar in presidential politics. But then John McCain picked staunchly pro-life Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Now, Sen. Obama has launched an ad targeting John McCain's opposition to abortion rights. Could the issue be potent enough to swing votes in the remaining weeks of the election?

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, she was a teacher's aide who knew all about special-needs kids in the classroom, and then her own child was diagnosed. We begin the Autism Chronicles.

CHADWICK: First, the economy, the war in Iraq, offshore oil drilling, all issues for the election. Now in recent weeks, another issue is in play, or back in play. As Day to Day's Alex Cohen reports, it's been a powerful element in earlier campaigns.

ALEX COHEN: Abortion is not a topic either candidate has said too much about on the campaign trail. When accepting the Democratic nomination in Denver, Senator Obama made only brief mention of the issue.

(Soundbite of speech, 2008 Democratic National Convention, August 27, 2008)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; 2008 Democratic Presidential Nominee): We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.

(Soundbite of applause)

COHEN: When Senator John McCain accepted his party's nomination, he never used the word abortion, though he did talk about his belief in the culture of life. But actions can speak louder than words. McCain chose Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. Palin is the mother of an unwed, pregnant daughter, and an infant with Down syndrome, both of whom appeared frequently on camera when she gave her speech at the Republican National Convention.

(Soundbite of speech, 2008 Republican National Convention, September 3, 2008)

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; 2008 Republican Vice Presidential Nominee): We were so blessed in April. Todd and I welcomed our littlest one into the world, a perfectly beautiful baby boy named Trigg.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. CLYDE WILCOX (Government, Georgetown University): Try to have a look at the coded signals.

COHEN: Clyde Wilcox teaches government at Georgetown University. He says McCain's choice of Palin sends a subtle but clear message to social conservatives.

Dr. WILCOX: So, the fact that the vice-presidential candidate, you know, has her husband hold up her baby, who has Down's, right? And then, you know, sort of remind them about the daughter, very covertly that she's going to have her baby, and that's the pro-life message.

COHEN: That message was heard by voter Mary Levitt (ph) on the floor of the Republican Convention. Levitt said she's thrilled about Sarah Palin.

Ms. MARY LEVITT (Attendee, 2008 Republican National Convention): When I read about her baby and the choice she made, I thought, oh, my gosh, that's a gift from God to him.

COHEN: Abortion has long been a hot-button issue, but it usually doesn't rank too high with voters in a presidential election. According to a Gallup Poll from earlier this year, just 13 percent said they'd only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion, and by a slim margin, more voters were likely to say they are pro-choice than pro-life. But some think Governor Palin may bring new enthusiasm to the pro-life camp. Serrin Foster is president of an organization that Palin belongs to called Feminists for Life. Here's how Foster summarizes their philosophy.

Ms. SERRIN FOSTER (President, Feminists for Life): So often you have one side only talking about the woman, the other side only talking about children, and we have always said we refuse to choose between women and children.

COHEN: Foster says, by bringing this feminist approach to the discussion, Palin appeals to a lot of voters.

Ms. FOSTER: She said that no woman should have to choose between her career, education, and her child. That is Feminists for Life's heart and soul.

COHEN: But Sarah Palin has also said she does not support abortion, and even in the instances of rape and incest. Ann Stone is the national chair of Republicans for Choice. She says initially Senator McCain had been polling very well among her members. Now, she's not as sure.

Ms. ANN STONE (Chairperson, Republicans for Choice): Depending on where you are on this issue, you have to make a decision. Are you willing to leave choice in the hands of the Democrats that will control the Senate? Or do you feel you also have to have the White House? And that is a personal decision people have to make.

COHEN: That ambivalence is something Senator Obama hopes to tap into. Obama's campaign recently launched this radio ad in several states.

(Soundbite of Obama/Biden campaign ad)

Unidentified Announcer: As president, John McCain will make abortion illegal. McCain says, I do not support Roe versus Wade. It should be overturned.

COHEN: Though McCain couldn't singlehandedly overturn Roe versus Wade as president, he would have the authority to nominate Supreme Court justices who would have that power. Pro-choice groups are trying to get that message out to the public.

Ms. CECILE RICHARDS: (President, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Planned Parenthood Federation of America): Women voting for John McCain, it's like chickens voting for Colonel Sanders.

COHEN: Cecile Richards is president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Ms. RICHARDS: We have four million supporters in this country, and we've just focused on the ones who we believe are less informed about the election and probably a little more up for grabs. And we're filling in that education gap and then making sure that they go to vote in November.

COHEN: But in the two final months before the election, both candidates should be wary of sending any abortion-related message that comes off too strong, warns Georgetown University Professor Clyde Wilcox.

Dr. WILCOX: Here's the trick. Most Americans are actually conflicted, and they don't really want abortion to be illegal all the time. They're just a little bit worried that it's legal all the time, but there's an awful lot of people just, sort of, in the middle.

COHEN: Voters will have to take some stance on the issue in at least three states this fall, California, South Dakota, and the crucial swing state of Colorado. All have abortion-related measures on the ballot. Alex Cohen, NPR News.

CHADWICK: Stay with us. We've got more in a moment from Day to Day.

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