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McCain's Anti-Choice Appeal Limited by Old Battle

Sunday, March 2, 2008

John McCain touts his anti-abortion credentials in his bid for the U.S. presidency. But old battles over campaign finance reform are hindering him from gaining the backing of the National Right to Life Committee and other activists.

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John McCain greets young voters.

Editor's Note: In March 4 primaries, John McCain swept the races and won in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont to clinch the Republican Party nomination for the presidency.

(WOMENSENEWS)--Republican presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain has been clear about his position on abortion since he first ran for office 25 years ago: He opposes it.

McCain still has a hard time winning over some anti-choice lobbyists he antagonized during his Senate drive for campaign finance reform.

But as he tries to oust former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who distantly trails McCain in the race, the frontrunner still has a hard time winning over some anti-choice lobbyists he antagonized during his Senate drive for campaign finance reform.

The National Right to Life Committee in Washington, D.C., initially endorsed former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson in the 2008 primaries and since his departure from the contest it has kept silent even though McCain voted for the 2003 federal abortion ban that was written and lobbied by the leading anti-choice group.

In McCain's home state the Arizona Right to Life Political Action Committee gave Huckabee its backing on Jan. 25.

As recently as Feb. 5 radio host James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, an influential evangelical organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo., said in a national broadcast, "I cannot, and will not, vote for Sen. John McCain as a matter of conscience."

Plenty of anti-choice activists--including Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., head of the Pro-Life Caucus in the House of Representatives--have given McCain their nod.

Yet the GOP frontrunner's championship of campaign-finance reform, which brought him into bruising battles with the National Right to Life Committee in particular, is haunting his campaign.

Campaign Finance a Signature Issue

Stung by a 1991 Senate ethics reprimand stemming from his ties to banker Charles Keating in the national savings and loan scandal, McCain began in 1995 to advocate for campaign-finance reform.

This put him on a collision course with the National Right to Life Committee, which Deborah Goldberg, program director of the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice in New York, says "produced virtually all of the campaign finance litigation across the country."

The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Act of 2002--known as "McCain-Feingold" for the candidate and its co-sponsor, Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin--required advocacy groups to name their financial donors if they ran advertisements that target candidates within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary.

That reform, which curtailed issues-based campaign ads, dented the influence of advocacy groups, including the powerful and well-financed lobby against abortion rights, which has run hundreds of issue ads in each election cycle.

Required disclosure reports indicate that in the 2000 election, the National Right to Life Committee Political Action Committee, a separate arm of the advocacy group, spent $2.7 million to support the candidacy of George W. Bush in the presidential election.

"McCain has not made friends in the Republican Party because of his position on campaign finance," said Goldberg. "National Right to Life has been very closely associated with the Republican Party, and the Republican Party has financed the National Right to Life Committee."

"The campaign finance bill is one of the big reasons social conservatives have been opposing McCain," said Peter Montgomery, vice president for communications of People for the American Way, a civil rights advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

Defrosting Old Opponents

But, he said, the National Right to Life Committee may have lowered its emphasis on campaign finance reform in deciding to endorse Thompson, who also supported McCain-Feingold.

The McCain campaign recently began to call evangelical leaders across the country with the message that he "will be good on judges" in an effort to shore up his support among abortion opponents, according to a Feb. 13 report from Christian Broadcasting Network correspondent David Brody.

Neither the McCain campaign nor the National Right to Life Committee responded to calls for comment for this story.

The James Madison Center for Free Speech, an offshoot of the National Right to Life Committee, has gone to court a dozen times in the past six years to challenge campaign finance reform.

The center's officers are the president, executive director and assistant executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, and most of its $1 million annual budget is paid to James Bopp Jr., the longstanding general counsel of National Right to Life who is also on its board.

In 2007, the Madison Center represented the Wisconsin Right to Life Committee in a challenge to McCain-Feingold in the U.S. Supreme Court and, in one legal pleading, Bopp, a resident of Indiana, asked that the court prohibit McCain from filing a brief.

In a June 2007 ruling on the Wisconsin case, the Supreme Court opened an exception into McCain-Feingold, holding that advocacy organizations could run advertisements close to an election without filing the names of donors if the messages could be interpreted as something other than an appeal to vote for a certain candidate.

In December the Madison Center sued to permit anonymous advertisements for release of a documentary film "Hillary: The Movie" in theaters ahead of January and February primary voting. It was produced by a group called Citizens United and featured many Clinton detractors. Hillary Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, who is shown in the film through excerpts of news coverage, denounced it as a partisan attack.

The ads were aimed at cable and television stations in locations such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida, and Citizens Union wanted a ruling in advance that they wouldn't have to disclose who paid for the ads, but a federal district court ruled against the group.

For the 2008 election, Bopp became a consultant to Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who declared himself to be anti-choice despite a record of supporting abortion rights as governor in Massachusetts.

Flunks Advocates' Scorecards

NARAL Pro-Choice America, the nation's leading abortion rights lobby, has given

McCain a grade of zero out of 100 points for 11 years, including 2007. Over his Senate career, the Washington, D.C, group says he took anti-choice positions 123 times in 128 separate votes.

He voted against permitting abortions on military bases for soldiers or their families. He voted to make it a crime for an adult to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion and to prohibit government funding of family planning groups overseas if they provide information about abortion or services.

McCain voted to deny grants to U.S. family planning groups for health services if they perform abortions with their own funds, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America's 2007 scorecard.

He also voted to make the State Child Health Insurance Program law require health care coverage for a fetus or embryo but not for a pregnant woman in government-supported health insurance. On three other votes measured by NARAL, McCain was absent or did not vote.

The National Right to Life Committee has nonetheless withheld high marks, giving him grades over the past 10 years that range between 81 percent and 33 percent and reflect its inclusion of campaign finance reform as an element of its measuring system.

In 1997-1998, for example, McCain adhered to the group's preferred voting record on all but 3 of 15 issues on its scorecard. Two of the deviating votes were the ones he cast in favor of the McCain-Feingold bill.

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York who frequently writes about reproductive justice and politics.

 
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