(CNSNews.com) - Michael Dukakis helped torpedo the presidential ambitions of Missouri Democrat Dick Gephardt back in 1988 with an infamous flip-flop attack ad. Now, it's Republicans who are blasting Gephardt, this time for his changing position on abortion.
Will voters care? Or does the GOP have something else in mind?
To be sure, as Gephardt's presidential ambitions have grown over the years, his views on abortion have shifted more and more in favor of legalized abortion.
The Republican National Committee duly notes that Gephardt eschewed a litmus test for judicial nominees in 1986, and then in 1996 voted to override a Clinton veto on a partial birth abortion ban. In fact, two decades ago, Gephardt called abortion "repugnant" and led an effort to adopt a constitutional amendment banning it.
"At the beginning of my journey in public service, I didn't yet realize the full consequences of my beliefs," Gephardt told a NARAL Pro-Choice America convention in a January speech. "I was raised in a working-class family of the Baptist faith," he said. "Abortion was wrong, I was taught. There was a moral reason it was illegal."
But, he said, his "eyes were opened...by friends and by colleagues and by strangers, by women I didn't know and would never meet again, and by members of my own family."
Though rejecting the litmus test label, Gephardt now says he doesn't think he would nominate someone to sit on the Supreme Court who was not pro-choice and claims that he wouldn't sign a partial birth abortion ban that lacked an exception for the health of the woman.
Gephardt earned a middling-but-respectable 65 percent vote rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America during the 107th Congress.
The candidate's shift on abortion is understandable, says Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America. "The abortion lobby is very strong, they have a lot of money, and they are controlling the Democratic Party right now," said Day, echoing the observations of many.
"It's very unfortunate for those members and elected officials who are pro-life because they often feel like they're not included in the big tent...of the Democratic Party," Day lamented.
The Democratic National Committee refuses to link to Day's website, she said, despite requests from a handful of pro-life congressional Democrats. And the party's national convention routinely excludes pro-life speakers.
"A lot of the candidates get a lot of pressure...to switch their position," Day said - not only Gephardt, but also fellow Democratic candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), for example.
Some analysts say Gephardt's changing abortion views will help him in the Democratic primaries next year while doing him little damage in a general election match-up with President Bush.
There is, however, evidence that being pro-abortion is a negative in national politics.
Karlyn Bowman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that about 7 to 13 percent of the electorate consistently says abortion is the most important issue when casting a vote in a national election.
"That is not an insignificant single-issue vote," Bowman observed. "At the national level, that vote has broken in the Republicans' favor."
A new Gallup poll shows that 53 percent of Americans believe abortion is "morally wrong," compared to 45 percent just two years ago.
But pollster John Zogby suspects that Republicans may have a more ambitious strategy in mind than swaying general election votes.
"Obviously, any attacks today by the RNC are going to help a candidate in the Democratic primary...help with fundraising and help build some intensity" amongst Democratic voters, said Zogby.
Conservative writer George Will has written two columns praising Gephardt as the best man for the nomination, Zogby noted.
"You can't help but draw the conclusion that they're thinking if they have to run against a traditional liberal Democrat, they're going to be able to beat a traditional liberal Democrat," said Zogby.
Republicans may not want to run against a "war hero," Zogby believes, meaning Vietnam veteran and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
But Zogby warns Republicans to worry less about possible Democratic opponents and more about their own domestic policy agenda.
"Right now, they do not have a domestic constituency," Zogby charged. "They don't have one on health care, they don't have one of the environment, they don't have one on a number of major issues. They're not doing all that well on taxes, either" because taxpayers see their property taxes skyrocketing, he said.
"I do see Bush's numbers dropping ...significantly already," Zogby said.
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