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Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2000 /27 Shevat, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Which GOPer is willing to pay for his positions? -- HANOVER, N.H. -- They are four characters in search of a presidency. The same in their ambition, Bush, Gore, McCain and Bradley are far different in their White House agendas.

The issue that will engage them all, however, is that of a woman's right to an abortion.

George W. Bush, 53, is Shakespeare's Prince Hal. He has abandoned a wild youth for a seasoned adulthood. Where once he heard the chimes at midnight, he now hears the call of his father's throne.

There are weaknesses in such late-blooming. Having spent so many years taking the challenges of life as they came, he developed no taste for serious speculation. A youth and young adulthood spent at the fun-loving Falstaff's side may have ill-prepared him to debate abortion rights with Albert Gore.

"Should the 14th Amendment's protections apply to the unborn child," CNN's Wolf Blitzer asks him. "Well, I'm not very familiar with what that part of the platform's all about," Bush answers. "Maybe you can help me understand."

John McCain, quick with judgment on grand matters of peace and war, pleads for a break when it comes to abortion rights.

"I think there's huge problems associated with this entire issue because it's based on moral beliefs," he told me last week. "I'm trying to find a way through it, preserving my fundamental beliefs, and I think that a dialogue is very important."

The big question, starting in tomorrow's first-in-the-nation primary here, is who will pay the bigger price for his uneasy position. Gov. Bush, who was pushed rightward in Iowa on the abortion issue by the taunts of Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer. Or John McCain, who must rely on abortion moderates and pro-choicers to beat Bush in the early Republican primaries?

The probable answer is that both men will be hurt by their uneasy abortion stands. Bush might well win the GOP nomination tilting starboard on the issue but suffer fatal defections by pro-choice Republican women in November.

McCain, trying to be a conciliator on the polarizing question, may so alienate the party's pro-life majority that he never gets that far.

On the Democratic side, there's a pronounced comfort with the abortion rights position.

Al Gore, 51, speaks of "a woman's right to choose" as if he were saying "it's great to be here." His frequent recitation of this mantra is practice for the general election. He seems intent on making George Bush's anti-abortion stance the same kind of weapon he made of Bill Bradley's stance on Medicaid.

Bradley, for his part, continues to speak on such issues from such a distant, Olympian height that many Democratic primary voters have yet to hear him.

Watching the intramural battles in both parties, meanwhile, it's hard to ignore the noise of a coming, all-out battle over abortion rights, with the Democratic candidate insisting on them, the Republican candidate trying with all his strength to change the subject.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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