State party chair Chris Vance, the mad scientist of Puget Sound Republicanism, spent the last three years concocting a not-so-secret political formula that he believed would catapult Republicans to power in Washington State. He intended to revamp the harsh image of the state party created by Culture War conservatives like Linda Smith, Ellen Craswell, and John Carlson, turning instead to candidates recruited for their mainstream, moderate appeal.

So far, his efforts have gone swimmingly. Gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, with his sunny, compassionate conservative message, is raking in scads of cash. Congressman George Nethercutt, who recently announced he did not support a federal constitutional amendment barring gay marriage, is enjoying heavyweight national party support in his bid to unseat U.S. Senator Patty Murray. King County Council Member Rob McKenna, running for attorney general, is an ambitious, brainy rising star who looks (and sounds) wonkishly unthreatening. But all three have the same problem. One word: abortion.

Washington State is one of the most secular-minded, pro-choice states in the country. In 1992, voters passed I-120, which codified Roe v. Wade into state law. In 1998, a late-term abortion-ban initiative, I-694, flopped, and the state boasts some of the most liberal abortion laws in the nation. A December 2003 statewide poll for Emily's List, the national PAC that supports pro-choice women, found 51-percent voter support for a pro-choice stand; only 10 percent agreed with the statement that "abortion should never be permitted."

That's bad news for Rossi, Nethercutt, and McKenna, and it explains why politically they try to finesse--or avoid--the issue. "I'm not running for Supreme Court," says Rossi, a conservative Catholic who opposed I-120. During a recent interview, McKenna said that while he personally believes life begins at conception, the state's voters have spoken and he will uphold their viewpoint, a nuanced position he joked was "unfortunately very similar to John Kerry's." Nethercutt opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at stake.

Choice advocates say this sort of bobbing and weaving won't work because the far-right zealotry of the Bush administration has given pro-choice voters a wake-up call. "It's going to be a wedge issue in a lot of these races," argues Karen Cooper of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington. And Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt says Republicans are still using abortion to fire up their Christian conservative base: "Republicans have tried to give themselves a makeover and it just hasn't worked."

Vance dismisses such criticism as fear-mongering. "The issue of abortion is pretty much settled," he says. "I don't think there's any passion among Republican politicians to try to massively change abortion laws, because you can't. It's the Democrats who keep wanting to make this an issue. They use it cynically to try to drive the election."

Vance may be right, but the election may still get driven. In recent decades most successful Washington State Republicans--Dan Evans, Sam Reed, Jennifer Dunn, Slade Gorton--have cultivated a pro-choice image. And that puts the current crop of Republican wannabes on the wrong side of history.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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