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For Democrats, abortion revisited

The party that lost on Nov. 2 wrestles with how to add nuance on a key cultural divide in America.

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For Democrats who favor abortion rights - that is, most of the party - this week may carry the sensation of standing on the edge of a cliff: President Bush has just been sworn in for four more years, and it's possible he will get to nominate enough new Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationwide 32 years ago Saturday.

But embedded in this week of inauguration and stock-taking lies a central irony: At a time when abortion-rights forces are feeling an acute sense of peril, they are also being asked to reframe the way abortion is discussed - including being more receptive to Democrats who oppose abortion.

"I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats," Howard Dean, a leading candidate to become the next Democratic Party chairman, said on "Meet the Press" last month. While calling himself "strongly pro-choice," he urged respect for antiabortion Democrats whose policy positions, such as support for children's programs, are "often lacking on the Republican side.

"We can change our vocabulary," he concluded, "but I don't think we ought to change our principles."

Governor Dean's remarks - and others by Democratic strategists and politicians, including Sen. John Kerry - did not sit well with many abortion-rights activists. But there is no doubt that, after last November's election in which the party lost ground among cultural conservatives, the beginnings of a Democratic dialogue are taking place over how better to connect with middle America on this divisive issue.

"The perception among some voters that Democrats are tone-deaf secularists is costing us big-time," says William Galston, a University of Maryland professor and former policy adviser to President Clinton. "So I think that how we talk about abortion and other issues is part of a much bigger picture. The Democrats can win as the party of tolerance; they cannot win as the party of secularism."

The messages of last year's vote

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