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September 30, 2010

NY Dems use abortion to mobilize base against GOP

ALBANY — Legal for 40 years with little likelihood of changing soon, abortion has again become a litmus test in New York politics as top-of-the-ticket candidates from both parties aim to energize the voters who comprise their base.

In the governor's race, Carl Paladino sparked a response when, the day after winning the Republican nomination, he told an interviewer he opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Abortion rights advocates began airing commercials Wednesday saying Paladino wants to outlaw abortion and treat women as criminals.

"It became pretty clear to us we had the most anti-choice candidate the state had ever seen," said Mary Alice Carr, spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice New York. The advocacy group on Wednesday endorsed Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo, who has called Paladino's views extreme.

In the race for a U.S. Senate seat once viewed as a possible Republican pickup, incumbent Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand pressed the issue Wednesday against Republican Joe DioGuardi. DioGuardi, a former congressman, is a longtime abortion foe, though his campaign says he recognizes exceptions in the case of rape or incest or if a mother's life is in danger.

The issue is sliding down the ballot to the race for attorney general, the office charged with upholding the laws of the state.

Siena pollster Steven Greenberg said one subtext is the desire to rouse part of the Democratic base that may have become lethargic since President Barack Obama's win two years ago.

"I think the Democrats sense they are facing a turnout issue heading into election day. There's enthusiasm among Republicans and not much enthusiasm among Democrats," Greenberg said. "It is an issue that really appeals to Democratic voters."

Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute, said its surveys have found about 10 to 15 percent of respondents are strongly right to life and up to about 20 percent support abortion on demand, with everyone else falling in the middle.

"The only ones who take it seriously as a political issue, as an election issue, are the ones on either end," he said.

Pew Research Center surveys in 2009 found Americans about equally divided on abortion, with fewer showing support than in the previous few years. There was a drop from 34 to 8 percent of liberal Democrats who said it was a critical issue, compared with a decline from 35 to 26 percent among conservative Republicans.

The New York State Right to Life Party was founded to oppose the legalization of abortion in New York in 1970. The party first made the state ballot in the 1978 gubernatorial election, where its candidate Mary Jane Tobin won 130,000 votes. Its share of the vote subsequently declined until 2002, when it fell short of the 50,000 votes required to remain on the ballot.

Paladino says he was born and raised Catholic, believes "in the inherent dignity and sanctity of all human life," and opposes using public money for abortions or to fund organizations that advocate the procedure. He also has said, however, that he will follow the law.

"The NARAL ad is just more ridiculous exaggeration from another Cuomo surrogate group sent to do the bidding of the Albany ruling class," Paladino spokesman Michael Caputo said.

In New York, abortion is legal through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy and after that by a doctor's order to preserve the mother's life. With a Democratic supermajority in New York's Assembly, any retreat on the law is unlikely.

Carr said NARAL is unconvinced that Paladino, the tough-talking Buffalo businessman who has threatened to take a baseball bat to Albany, will respect the law as it is written.

Michael Long, chairman of the Conservative Party, said Paladino will advocate to change abortion laws but he knows he can't change federal law and has little chance of changing state law under the current Democrat-led Legislature. He said he expected Cuomo to use abortion to mobilize voters even though, Long said, it's a non-issue this election year.

"It shows they're in trouble," he said.

The Gillibrand campaign criticized DioGuardi for voting in 1988 for an amendment that banned government abortion funding in Washington in cases of rape, incest or when the life of a mother is in danger. Echoing Cuomo, the Gillibrand campaign has called DioGuardi's abortion views "extreme."

DioGuardi campaign spokesman Tom Kise said DioGuardi opposes federal funding for abortions, and he accused Gillibrand of trying to change the subject from economic issues like the national debt, health care overhaul and jobs.

"Kirsten Gillibrand wants to talk about social issues because she does not want to talk about the 100,000-plus jobs lost in New York in the last year," Kise said.

Abortion has become an issue in the attorney general's race as well, pushed by Democrat Eric Schneiderman even as Republican Dan Donovan says that he too will uphold the law, though he personally opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest.

On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood Advocates of New York endorsed Schneiderman, who was cheered and applauded in a crowded Albany office where he promised to "aggressively defend" their rights to birth control. He noted that at 17, he worked at a Washington clinic that provided abortions.

"I promise you if there's harassment at clinics you're not going to have someone who takes a passive approach and waits to see if the problem just goes away," Schneiderman said.

Donovan called the issue "a red herring" and distraction from the real issues in New York, including a corrupt state government.

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