(CNSNews.com) - Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) will have a lengthy pro-abortion rights record to defend during her 2008 presidential campaign -- a record established not only by her Senate votes but also by her eight years as first lady.
The presumed frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton has a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood. The same can be said of Democratic Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Joseph Biden of Delaware and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- all of whom are expected to challenge Clinton for the nomination.
Although helpful in a Democratic primary, a rigid stance on the issue could pose a challenge in a general election. Polls consistently show a majority of Americans support keeping abortion legal, but favor restrictions Clinton and many Democrats don't support.
Furthermore, among those who base their electoral decision on the issue, polls show that pro-lifers outnumber pro-choice voters.
"She's known for that position, though she may try to look more moderate," said Karen Cross, political director for the National Right to Life Committee.
"You can look at her voting record and the fact that she was so visible in the Clinton years as opposed to others who were not as visible like [Connecticut Sen. Chris] Dodd and Edwards. She no doubt had influence when she was married to the president."
According to documents obtained from the Clinton Presidential Library by Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group in Washington, President Clinton's domestic policy advisors frequently involved the first lady's staff in deciding White House abortion policy, and the president even asked "what does Hillary think?" before signing off on a policy.
"No one else - of the candidates currently in - is so tied to the issue, not only because of her past but because of her gender," said Bruce Gronbeck, a professor of media studies and political culture at the University of Iowa.
But, he added, "I watched her in the last [Senate] campaign in New York and she neutralized the issue. She has taken the position that no one likes abortion, but it's important that it's legal."
However, the presidential library documents indicate that Clinton as first lady played a major role in an administration that opposed a ban on partial birth abortion, opposed parental notification and favored public funding for abortion, said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch.
Her voting record as senator reflects consistency with her White House advocacy, he said.
"People might misapprehend Hillary Clinton as a moderate on certain issues, when in fact on this matter she has taken a radical approach to abortion," Fitton argued.
Clinton's Senate press office did not return phone calls on the matter.
NARAL-Pro Choice America, an abortion rights advocacy group, has not endorsed a presidential candidate yet, but the group's president, Nancy Keenan, said Friday it was important that the country have a solidly "pro-choice" president.
"It's always an issue in any election, in particular as we are coming up on a presidential year as we have a very anti-choice president right now," Keenan said. "NARAL will make it part of the dialogue.
"It's one thing to control the House and the Senate. It's another thing to have a president who is pro-choice to make sure those freedoms are protected."
'Outside the cultural mainstream'
The library documents show that shortly after taking office in 1993, President Clinton reversed a 10-year-old policy blocking federal funds to non-governmental agencies that promote abortion as a means of birth control in other nations.
Days after Clinton's executive order to reverse the policy, White House staffer Christine Varney forwarded a letter from James Michel, acting administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development, dated Jan. 27, 1993, only to the president, White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, domestic policy director Carol Rasco, press secretary Dee Dee Myers -- and the first lady.
This would seem to indicate the junior senator from New York had a strong policy voice - at least on this issue -- when her husband was president, Fitton said.
A May 20, 1993 memo from Bill Galston, a member of Clinton's Domestic Policy Council, suggested that the president lay low in supporting abortion rights because, "We should not go out of our way to emphasize issues that reinforce the impression that we are somehow outside the cultural mainstream."
The memo came at a time Congress was considering the "Freedom of Choice Act," a bill that would codify into law the Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Also, Clinton was mulling how to battle an amendment proposed by then Illinois Republican Rep. Henry Hyde to ban Medicaid funds going to abortion.
The policy memo suggested the White House simply let Congress fight it out. It was on this memo that President Clinton scribbled, "What does Hillary think?"
(Another letter -- from abortion clinic director Dr. Takey Crist of Jacksonville N.C. dated April 1, 1993 - was sent to White House communications director George Stephanopoulos. It explained why taxpayer-funded abortions, which Crist estimated would cost $1.8 million, were more cost effective than paying $66.2 million in social services to raise the children.
Crist wrote, "Critics who say that paying for federally financed abortions would put the taxpayers into the 'grisly business' of abortion are using the same scare tactics that were used back in 1976 and 1977 by Henry Hyde who has been financed and paid off by the Catholic church for years."
Stephanopoulos circulated the comments to senior staff, and the letter was archived in the Clinton presidential library.
"That was slander on the congressman and on the church," Fitton said. "Since Roe v. Wade, this has been the most radical pro-abortion administration ever.")
Sen. Clinton is poised to win the endorsement of Emily's List, a political group that raises money for female candidates that support abortion rights, the Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this month.
The organization late last week declined to comment until the senator is officially in the race. Clinton announced her bid Saturday.
The abortion issue could face a new dynamic this year since at least one GOP candidate supports abortion rights, said Shawn Perry-Giles, the director the Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland.
"If [former New York City mayor] Rudy Giuliani is the Republican nominee then it won't be an issue, unless Republicans stay home," Perry-Giles told Cybercast News Service. "People who are ardently pro-life would not support her [Clinton] to begin with."
Both sides will likely try to avoid the highly emotional issue, Perry-Giles added. Even Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, possibly the most socially-conservative potential GOP contender, has talked little about the issue, she said. Brownback also declared this intention to join the 2008 race Saturday.
"Hillary Clinton is pro-choice, but she is trying to walk a middle line," Perry-Giles said. "She's portrayed by the Republican opposition as very liberal and the poster child for the pro-choice movement. She will try not to make that a cornerstone in the campaign."
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