Pro-lifers are the first part of the conservative base to rally around Sen. John McCain, overcoming past fights to embrace him as strong on their core issue and a clear choice over the two Democrats he could face.
“He is pro-life in his heart of hearts, in my opinion,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and a pro-life movement leader, who said Mr. McCain’s commitment stretches back across decades of votes in the House and Senate.
Though the Arizona senator and all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee doesn’t detail his voting record on the campaign trail, an examination reveals a striking opposition to abortion in most of the major fights such as partial-birth abortion down to the smallest of skirmishes, even when he was in a distinct minority.
Those votes include joining just 20 other senators in voting to delete family-planning grants from a spending bill in 1988 and joining 18 others in voting against spending Medicaid funds on abortions in cases of rape and incest. In the 1990s, he voted against the bill creating federal penalties for blocking access to abortion clinics and voted against allowing federal-government health insurance plans to cover abortions.
In recent years, his pro-life rating has slipped, in part due to his championing of campaign-finance reform, which angered pro-life groups who said it cut off their ability to campaign, and in part because of his support for federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research.
But even groups that fought bitterly with him over those issues are now rallying around him.
“When you contrast him with the alternative and you think about such things as Supreme Court appointments, McCain is a far better choice,” said Barbara L. Lyons, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, an organization that took Mr. McCain all the way to the Supreme Court over his campaign-finance laws, and won.
Even outspoken critic Rick Santorum, who over the past month had savaged Mr. McCain’s commitment to the issue, has gone quiet. When asked for an interview with The Washington Times, his spokeswoman said the former senator didn’t have anything to add to the debate at this point.
Mr. McCain has always attracted conservative deficit hawks but has had trouble so far this campaign soothing differences with gun rights groups, pro-tax-cut groups and other parts of the political machine crucial to driving Republican turnout. But pro-lifers’ embrace could be the beginning of a re-examination by those other parts of the conservative movement.
Mr. McCain’s two remaining Republican opponents claim to have better pro-life credentials.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas often begins his stump speech saying the right to life is paramount, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee got his start in politics from the pro-life movement. Mr. Huckabee frequently notes his support for a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution — something Mr. McCain has not committed to supporting.
Arizona Right to Life’s political action committee didn’t endorse him in the primary, but it did “acknowledge” Mr. Huckabee as the best candidate on their issue. Still, John Jakubczyk, president of Arizona Right to Life, said that doesn’t mean pro-life voters should be disappointed with Mr. McCain.
“From my perspective, I see him as someone we can enthusiastically support, and I look forward to his getting elected,” Mr. Jakubczyk said, adding they have endorsed Mr. McCain every time he has run in Arizona.
But Mr. Jakubczyk said there will be grass-roots pro-life voters who are not ready to forgive Mr. McCain for a litany of sins.
“There are a lot of people within the grass roots who focused on the negatives of Senator McCain. There’s going to be some time that they’re going to have to consider what they’re going to do,” he said.