Even as Democratic presidential candidates touch the abortion issue gingerly for fear of enraging social conservatives, Republican voters are showing early signs of de-emphasizing the issue in their search for a presidential candidate who can win in 2008.
Two of the top three GOP candidates have records of supporting abortion rights: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. While Romney has reversed his position and now calls himself "pro-life," Giuliani continues to support abortion rights and, despite this, has maintained a lead in most major polls.
Though not all voters know the intricacies of the candidates' records, early polls suggest at least an initial willingness among Republican primary voters to consider a candidate whose views on abortion verge far from party orthodoxy, said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas.
"There's some pragmatism at work in their thinking process," Buchanan said. "Because of the general gloom about the prospects of the Republican Party, there's a sense that they may have to go with the horse that could have the best chance" in the general election.
Republican insiders have long taken it as an article of faith that the party's presidential nomination cannot be captured by someone who supports abortion rights. That trend has held going back to 1980, when Ronald Reagan -- a fierce opponent of abortion -- won the first of his two presidential terms.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday that a "pro-choice" candidate like Giuliani may be able to neutralize the issue of abortion rights for Republican voters by saying -- as Giuliani has -- that he would appoint only conservative justices to the Supreme Court.
"And God knows we don't want the alternative, being whoever the Democrats have in place," said Tancredo, a 2008 presidential candidate who strongly opposes abortion rights.
The abortion issue may not be as salient as it once was for GOP voters, given the changing political landscape. Last month, a Supreme Court with two new Bush appointees voted five to four to uphold the federal ban on the controversial procedure its opponents call partial-birth abortion, suggesting that the high court is now leaning toward a stronger anti-abortion position, even if it's not quite ready to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Last fall, voters in one of the most conservative states in the nation -- South Dakota -- rejected an abortion ban that had been passed by the state's Republican elected officials. That led some observers to argue that social issues such as abortion rights are no longer as politically powerful as they once were.
Social-conservative leaders are just as committed as they've always been to electing a president who opposes abortion. But with Republicans concerned that their losses in last year's congressional races could repeat themselves in next year's presidential campaign, some in the GOP appear ready to look at candidates differently.
"Giuliani's position on abortion may be a negative, but it may not be disqualifying," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "Republicans would much rather have a pro-choice Republican president than a Hillary Clinton or a Barack Obama as president."
Ayres noted that in March, Giuliani placed second in a poll of activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference, suggesting that Giuliani's association with 9/11 held more sway with many attendees than his position on social issues.
The Giuliani campaign is calculating that Republican primary voters will give the former mayor credit for sticking with his beliefs -- and ultimately support his candidacy in spite of his position on abortion.
"This election is being framed through a different prism -- people are looking for leadership," said Maria Comella, a Giuliani spokeswoman.
Still, the Republican candidates who have supported abortion are hardly advertising that fact to voters. Romney, by his own admission, changed his position two years ago and now wants to see Roe v. Wade reversed, a point he reiterated in an interview Monday night on "Hannity and Colmes."
"We were having this debate on cloning, and I could see where the Roe v. Wade devaluation of human life had led," Romney said. "It had led to a point where people were beginning to say, 'Hey, now we're going to start cloning embryos.' It's like, 'wait a second. This really is going too far.' "
Giuliani has sought to emphasize his personal opposition to abortion, saying he "abhors" the practice and would counsel all women against getting abortions. But after saying at a GOP debate last week that it would be "OK" if Roe v. Wade were overturned, he has scrambled to square his personal beliefs with his record of supporting abortion rights and abortion-related causes.
This week, new reports emerged that Giuliani and his then-wife donated at least six times to Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, during the 1990s. The campaign has declined to respond directly to the revelation, saying instead that Giuliani has always been clear that he supports a woman's right to choose while also personally opposing the practice.
"Ultimately, this election is about leadership, and it's a sign of leadership to stand by your position in the face of political expediency," Comella said in a statement released by the campaign.
Polls suggest that Giuliani is right to worry about the public learning more about his position on abortion. February's ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 46 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say Giuliani's past support for abortion rights and gay civil unions make them less likely to vote for him.
Half of that group -- 23 percent -- said there's no chance they could vote for Giuliani because of those views. That dynamic has prompted interest in adding another conservative to the presidential field, with former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia two oft-mentioned possibilities.
But Giuliani has already defied the expectations of many Republicans, according to Ayres, the pollster.
"He has been at the top of many polls for a long time," he said. "He is for real, and he's sustained his position at the top of the heap for far longer than many pundits thought he could."