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Latest attacks on McCain carry risk


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2000

WASHINGTON -- By opposing Sen. John McCain's bid for the Republican presidential nomination, the National Right to Life Committee appears to be taking an incredibly big -- some might say foolish -- political gamble.

In South Carolina, the group is co-sponsoring ads on Christian radio stations and sending out thousands of fliers that accuse McCain of waffling on his anti-abortion views.

By attacking McCain, the committee is setting itself up for a political setback if he succeeds in winning the GOP nomination.

The most baffling part of the anti-abortion group's attack on McCain is that by most objective standards the Arizona senator has a strong anti-abortion voting record. The group acknowledges he has supported them on more than 90 percent of the legislative votes he has cast on abortion issues during 17 years in the Senate.

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By comparison, Bob Dole, who easily won the Right to Life Committee's endorsement in 1996, had a slightly less favorable anti-abortion voting record than McCain. George W. Bush, who has the group's support, has an anti-abortion record that is mostly rhetorical. As governor of Texas, Bush has vetoed one piece of legislation opposed by anti-abortion forces.

According to David N. O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee in Washington, the group has decided to attack McCain because of statements he has made that left the impression he was not firmly committed to the anti-abortion cause. McCain's aides say those remarks, about opposing the reversal of Roe vs. Wade in the short term, were misunderstood.

Holly Gatling, executive director of South Carolina Citizens for Life, the committee's affiliate in Columbia, says even though McCain has an anti-abortion voting record, he is not pro-life.

"He wears a pro-life veneer, that's all," she asserts.

McCain backers insist the group's opposition to the Arizona senator has more to do with his support of campaign finance reform than his statements about abortion. If abortion were the central issue, they say, the group would have endorsed Alan Keyes, who has made it the centerpiece of his campaign.

"It's all about campaign finance; it has nothing to do with the sanctity of life," says Trey Walker, who is heading McCain's South Carolina campaign. "I am amazed how Holly Gatling will sell out the unborn."

On campaign finance, there is a big difference between the two GOP contenders. McCain has sponsored legislation that would do away with the kind of so-called "issue ads" that Right to Life is running against McCain; Bush's plan would preserve them.

Some members of South Carolina Citizens for Life are unhappy with the group's decision to endorse Bush and attack McCain. One of them is Cindy Mosteller, a McCain supporter who heads the Right to Life forces in Charleston.

"It seems ironic to me that the Right to Life Committee has attacked someone who has a 95 percent right-to-life record," she says. "I've never seen Right to Life fighting against Bill Clinton -- who is pro-abortion -- they way they are fighting against John McCain."

The Right to Life Committee's effort is just one of the behind-the-scenes battles being waged against McCain. Telephone pollsters and radio ads question McCain's conservative principles on abortion, taxes, education, gun control and other issues. One Bob Jones University professor has even spread false rumors that McCain had two children out of wedlock. The professor has since admitted his error.

It's difficult to trace most of the attacks.

Under federal campaign laws, groups such as Right to Life can run independently financed television and radio ads to influence an election, as long as their ads are not coordinated with the campaign of any candidate. The law does not require that groups involved in these issue ads remain neutral.

When the South Carolina Citizens for Life began running anti-McCain radio ads last December, Gatling said in an interview that she was neutral in the GOP race. At the same time, Warren Thompkins, who is running Bush's campaign in South Carolina, said Gatling was an early member of the Bush steering committee.

Gatling insists she has never consulted the Bush campaign about her ads. She also denies that she was ever a member of the Bush steering committee.

Either way, if McCain wins the White House, the National Right to Life Committee -- because of its attacks on him -- will have voluntarily cut its ties with a president who says he is an abortion opponent.

On the abortion rights side of the debate, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Tuesday endorsed Democratic Vice President Al Gore. Unlike Right to Life, however, the abortion rights league waited until their candidate seemed virtually certain of winning his party's nomination.

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