After long defining itself as an undisputed defender of abortion rights, the Democratic Party is suddenly locked in an internal struggle over whether to redefine its position to appeal to a broader array of voters.
The fight is a central theme of the contest to head the Democratic National Committee, particularly between two leading candidates: former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who supports abortion rights, and former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, an abortion foe who argues that the party cannot rebound from its losses in the November election unless it shows more tolerance on one of society's most emotional conflicts.
Roemer is running with the encouragement of the party's two highest-ranking members of Congress, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and incoming Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Dean, a former presidential candidate, is popular with the party's liberal wing.
If Roemer were to succeed Terry McAuliffe as Democratic chairman in the Feb. 10 vote, the party long viewed as the guardian of abortion rights would suddenly have two antiabortion advocates at its helm. Reid, too, opposes abortion and once voted for a nonbinding resolution opposing Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
Party leaders say their support will not change for preserving the landmark ruling. But they are looking at ways to soften the hard line, such as promoting adoption and embracing parental notification requirements for minors and bans on late-term abortions. Their thinking reflects a sense among strategists that Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry and the party's congressional candidates lost votes because the GOP conveyed a more compelling message on social issues.
But in opening a discussion about new appeals to abortion opponents, party leaders are moving into uncertain terrain. Abortion-rights activists are critical pillars of the Democratic Party, providing money and grass-roots energy. Some of them say they are concerned that Democratic leaders are entertaining any changes to the party's approach to abortion.
A senior official of one of the nation's largest abortion rights groups said she would be concerned if the party were to choose Roemer to head the Democratic National Committee.
``We want people who are pro-choice. Of course I would be disappointed,'' said the official, who asked that her name be withheld because of her close alliance with party officials.
Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said Democratic strategists who were pushing for the abortion discussion had misconstrued the results of the November election, by overstating the strength of ``values'' voters.
She said the party should remain committed to the ``women of America, and their health and their lives and their rights.''
Feldt said she had spoken to Kerry and Roemer on Wednesday, and both sought to allay her concerns. Both assured her that the party was not changing its stance on abortion, but merely wanted to be more ``inclusive.''
The debate among Democrats comes at a time when abortion rights supporters are feeling particularly vulnerable. Congress passed a ban on what critics call ``partial-birth abortion'' last year that Bush signed into law. Last month abortion opponents were emboldened when four new conservative Republicans were elected to the Senate. Also, anticipated retirements from the Supreme Court could give Bush the chance nominate justices that would tilt the court against Roe vs. Wade.
The race for Democratic Party chairman remains wide open among Dean, Roemer and several other contenders, including longtime operative Harold M. Ickes, New Democrat Network head Simon Rosenberg and South Carolina political strategist Donald L. Fowler Jr. The field of candidates is likely to remain in flux until days before the February vote.
In an interview, Roemer said he would not try to change the minds of abortion rights supporters. But he also said he would encourage the party to eliminate its ``moral blind spot'' when it comes to late-term abortions.
``We should be talking more about adoption as an alternative, and working with our churches to sponsor some of those adoptions,'' Roemer said Wednesday from his Washington office. He said he was calling 40 to 50 delegates a day to make his pitch. Most of all, he said, he thinks that abortion opponents would be more comfortable if the party talked about the issue in a more open-minded manner.
``We must be able to campaign in 50 states, not just the blue states or 20 states,'' said Roemer, referring to the most Democratic-leaning states.
Dean declined through a spokeswoman to talk about the issue, but earlier this month he signaled that he would maintain the party's defense of abortion rights, telling NBC's Tim Russert: ``We can change our vocabulary, but I don't think we ought to change our principles.''
Votes will be cast by 447 members of the Democratic National Committee, many of whom are among the party's most liberal members. These members are thought to be friendly to Dean and less receptive to Roemer. But the former Indiana congressman is getting attention amid reports that both Pelosi and Reid urged him to run.
Roemer has also highlighted his service on the independent panel investigating the government's response to the Sept. 11 attacks, saying that credential builds his appeal to security-minded voters. He noted that he was an elected official from Indiana, a ``red state'' where Democrats want to make gains.
A Pelosi spokesman said the House Democratic leader likes Roemer because of his national security credentials. But a senior Democratic congressional aide said Pelosi also thought that Roemer's stance on abortion could be an additional benefit.
``She is pro-choice and very staunchly pro-choice,'' the aide said of Pelosi. But at the same time, the aide said, ``she supports showing that this is a big tent party.''
In the presidential election, Kerry, a Catholic, said he personally opposed abortion but did not believe in imposing that belief on others. He said he would not appoint antiabortion judges to the bench.
But after his election loss, the Massachusetts senator concluded that the party needed to rethink its stance. Addressing supporters at a meeting held by the AFL-CIO, Kerry said he discovered during trips through Pennsylvania that many union members were also abortion opponents and that the party needed to rethink how it could appeal to those voters, aKerry spokesman David Wade said.
On the other side of the debate, Wendy Wright, senior policy director for Conservative Women for America, which opposes abortion, said she thought it would be ``very smart'' for Democrats to elect Roemer chairman of the party.
``It would make sense for Democrats as a whole to recognize that Americans want protections for women and unborn children, want sensible regulations in place, instead of forbidding the law to recognize that an unborn child is a human being,'' Wright said. ``To not pass legislation just to keep the abortion lobby happy is nonsensical, and it appears that some Democrats have recognized that.''
Wright said it was too early to know whether Democrats wouldchange their votes on upcoming antiabortion legislation, or would only change the way they speak of abortion. She said the comments of some party leaders led her to believe that ``it would just be changing of wording, just trying to repackage in order to be more appealing -- really, to trick people.''
Some local Democratic leaders said they would be open to an antiabortion chairman under the right circumstances, but that it would be difficult to envision those circumstances.
``That would be a very large philosophical mountain for me to climb,'' said Mitch Ceasar, a Broward County, Fla., lawyer who is a voting member of the party's national committee.
Ceasar said he took note of Roemer's abortion stance when he received a letter recently from the former congressman. He said he was surprised to learn that abortion was an issue in the contest to succeed McAuliffe.
``It never occurred to me before his candidacy,'' Ceasar said. ``I never wondered whether Terry McAuliffe was pro-choice or not.''
Peter Wallsten and Mary Curtius / Los Angeles Times