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.
The exit polls from last week’s Republican primaries confirm that. Mr. McCain won pro-life voters — defined by the poll as those who think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases — in Maryland, but lost them in Virginia.
Still, for Mr. Jakubczyk and other pro-life leaders, the comparison with the Democratic candidates makes this election a simple choice.
“The extreme positions taken by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been almost completely obscured, as it often is, by the focus on the Republican candidate,” Mr. Smith said. “Some people like to be known as the education president. They will be known as the abortion president.”
He also said he expects medical advances to help overcome his disagreement with Mr. McCain over embryonic stem-cell research and said he has been encouraged by Mr. McCain’s words on the campaign trail.
The pro-lifers who worry say Mr. McCain has never been a leader on the issue, and they point to quotes that suggest he doesn’t want to fight on their turf. Aides in the past have said they don’t think his heart is in his pro-life stance, and The Washington Post quoted Mr. McCain earlier this month saying, “it’s not social issues I care about.”
But longtime backers said they don’t see that.
“I think that’s hogwash,” said Jan Brewer, Arizona’s secretary of state, who said she’s been through more than two decades of politicking with Mr. McCain.
“I have been on the campaign trail, I have been at meetings with him, I have been at organization and party gatherings, the issue with him is very clear that he’s pro-life,” she said.
Gerard V. Bradley, a Notre Dame University law professor who has written a strong defense of Mr. McCain as a pro-life candidate, said his long record should make pro-life voters comfortable with the senator.
“Doing is much more important than talking, and I will take action over speech every time,” Mr. Bradley said, adding that Mr. McCain’s pledge to appoint Supreme Court justices like Samuel A. Alito and John G. Roberts Jr. makes him “a sure bet for those who oppose abortion.”
For Matt Salmon, a strong pro-life advocate and former congressman from Arizona, there’s no doubt where Mr. McCain comes down.
“I have been with John McCain through thick and thin. This is a man I truly believe in, and I could not be as supportive as I am if I thought there was any ounce of equivocation,” he said.
Mr. Salmon said that was solidified during his 1994 campaign for Congress when he was the only pro-life candidate in a crowded field of Republicans. “He endorsed me in that primary, and he told me the reason he did was because of my pro-life stance,” Mr. Salmon said.
MCCAIN’S VOTING RECORD
The following is a snapshot of Sen. John McCain’s voting record on abortion and related issues, which has consistently been with the pro-life movement with the exception of embryo and fetal-tissue research.
Vote No. 268
Voted against an amendment that would have allowed Medicaid to pay for abortions in cases of rape or incest when the crime was reported promptly.
Vote No. 185
Voted to require groups that receive Title X public health money to notify a parent and observe a 48-hour waiting period in the case of a minor seeking an abortion.
Vote No. 112
Voted against imposing federal penalties on protesters who block access to abortion clinics.
Vote No. 215
Voted to allow federal funds to pay for fetal-tissue research using tissue obtained from abortions.
Vote No. 48
Voted against an amendment expressing the “sense of the Senate” that Roe v. Wade was properly decided.
Vote No. 402
Voted for a bill banning partial-birth abortion.
Vote No. 206
Voted to expand federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research, undoing President Bush’s compromise funding proposal.
Vote No. 263
Supported moving forward with a bill to prohibit transporting of minors across state lines to circumvent state parental-involvement laws.
Sources: Senate voting records; The Washington Times