Concord, NH (CNSNews.com) - As he winds down a five day, 17 community bus tour, dubbed the "Straight Talk Express," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) continues to explain away what people on either side of the abortion issue see as an effort to have it both ways.
McCain last week urged voters to look at what he characterized as his 17 year pro-life voting record, but angered pro-life allies when he suggested he would have difficulty supporting the repeal of Roe Vs Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion.
This week the senator, who runs a distant second in Granite State polls to Texas Governor George W. Bush, scrambled to clarify his position on the often-thorny issue, which could harm his chances in New Hampshire.
"If he stumbles here, he could well be done. He doesn't need to get tangled up in the abortion issue," said one well connected Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
What is becoming increasingly evident is McCain's lack of comfort in addressing abortion, perhaps the one issue which forces the senator off his usual message of campaign finance reform, military preparedness and foreign policy.
Several Republican activists in the state insist McCain must put the abortion issue behind him as quickly as possible. Having opted out of the Iowa Straw Poll, McCain has made the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries the focus of his race for the GOP presidential nomination.
McCain has also campaigned extensively in California, which has a winner-take- all primary, and said Wednesday he will soon make a decision about competing in the Iowa Caucus.
In response to a query from CNSNews.com at a media roundtable yesterday, McCain said if elected he would work, from day one, to overturn Roe Vs Wade, insisting he would "immediately support efforts to move forward in that direction."
McCain insisted he was not moderating his views in order to attract moderate Republican voters. "I reject that notion...my 17 year voting record is what people should look at." The senator did not rule out support for a constitutional amendment.
McCain said he continues to be concerned about what will happen to women if and when abortion is outlawed, including the "divisiveness in America."
"I would hope we would encourage adoption. I would hope we would continue to reform welfare, which would reduce the number of out-of-wedlock births. I would hope we would improve foster care and I would hope people on both sides of the issue would work together to eliminate this very difficult situation in America."
Should Roe Vs Wade be overturned, the abortion question would be decided at the state level.
Asked if he would support efforts to remove the abortion plank from the Republican Platform, McCain said no and added, "We are a pro-life party...I believe life begins at conception."
Responding to a questioner in Dixville, a small town in the northern part of the state, McCain insisted "I want the Republican Party to be an inclusive party...we can't impose a litmus test on this issue."
McCain's position has managed to anger people on both sides of the question, in this first-in-the-nation-primary state. "This wasn't straight talk...he was evasive," said Carol Roberts, a pro-choice supporter from the town of Winthrop.
At a stop in Lancaster, McCain tangled with pro-life advocate Arthur Morrill who accused the senator of straddling "both sides of the fence."
"People want a choice. They want a clear choice. They want more than 10 cent difference from Clinton," said Morrill, to which McCain responded, "I'm sorry you misinterpreted my remarks."
McCain stance also drew the ire of the Manchester Union Leader, the state's largest newspaper, whose conservative editorial page pictured the senator sporting a bus drivers uniform, traveling the state, making a pro-life statement in one place and a pro-choice statement in another.
The Arizona senator's tour also sparked debate on issues aside from abortion. In Nashua, McCain had harsh words for the tobacco industry, characterizing its leaders as "bad people," who have worked to addict children to their cigarettes.
McCain also had an exchange with an advocate of increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, during an appearance on New Hampshire Public Radio.
Noting his support for some of what the endowment does, the senator said Americans are offended by its more "egregious activities," including funding of religiously offensive works.
Using the controversial work of Robert Maplethorpe as an example, McCain said "Americans are offended when their tax dollars are used for such things...the American taxpayer's dollars should not be used for such things," and added he would oppose additional funding until such projects are no longer funded.
When a caller insisted such work represents a fraction of what the endowment supports, McCain was blunt, telling the woman he didn't care if the agency spent as little as a nickel on such projects; that was too much.
Asked at another stop if he would support a ban on assault weapons, McCain said such a ban already exists and called for stronger enforcement of existing gun laws.
However, the senator said he supports the use of safety locks on guns; the development and use of technology which would allow a gun to be fired only by its owner; the closing of loopholes as they relate to pawn shop sales and a one day background check for purchases made at gun shows.
"I'd be willing to look at other measures, if necessary, that would make sense," he added.