The GOP's Abortion Anxiety; the Pro-Life Movement Is on a Roll. So Why Are the Republican Party's Top Guns Suddenly So Shy on the Subject?

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Byline: Howard Fineman and Evan Thomas (With Martha Brant)

When South Dakota approved a law sharply restricting abortion last week, many pro-life Republicans around the country sounded a loud hallelujah. But at least one very senior Republican did not seem at all eager to join in the chorus. As Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, flew to Memphis to attend the first gathering of potential GOP presidential candidates for 2008, a NEWSWEEK reporter asked him if he had anything to say about the South Dakota law. "No," he said. Did he plan to make a statement on that topic at the Republican gathering in Memphis? "No" was the answer. Would he ever be willing to comment on the topic, other than to say that it's up to the states to make their own choices on abortion? Again, the answer was "no." The look on his face was more expressive. It appeared to ask, "Are you kidding?"

Why such reticence to embrace glad tidings? After all, the abortion issue has been good to the Republican Party. It has energized Roman Catholic and evangelical grass-roots activists and allowed the GOP to paint pro-choice Democrats as cultural extremists, out of step with Main Street and the heartland. But a recent flurry of activity on abortion is making Republican politicians nervous. With states moving to restrict abortion and the Supreme Court drawing closer to the day when it might actually reverse Roe v. Wade , the 1973 decision guaranteeing a woman's right to an abortion, GOP leaders see big political risks.

They may be in the awkward position of getting more than they asked for. The South Dakota law, for instance, would allow abortions only to save the life of the mother, not in cases of rape or incest. That is further than most Americans want to go. By a roughly two-to-one margin, polls show, people want to uphold the basic abortion right enshrined in Roe v. Wade , even if they approve of some restrictions, like parental notification. "I'm pro-life, but you can't wear the thing out," says Clarke Reed, the legendary architect of the GOP in Mississippi. "I'm worried about it." With reason: his own state legislature is moving in a direction similar to South Dakota's.

"Republicans are going to be the ones who look like extremists," says former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who lost his seat in 2004 after being beaten up on the abortion issue for years. That does not mean, however, that Democrats are rushing to call attention to the Republicans' dilemma. In the upcoming midterm elections, the Democrats don't plan to spend a dime on ads highlighting the abortion issue, according to Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the savvy Chicago pol who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He wouldn't spell out the reasons, but a top party staffer (who declined to be quoted out of deference to his bosses) told NEWSWEEK: "These guys are gun-shy because they're used to getting clobbered on the issue. …