I like South Dakota. I spent a week out there a few years ago, working on a story, and the people were nice, the undulating prairie was bewitching in the spirit of "Lonesome Dove," and the airport outside the state capital was the size of a bus station circa 1959. An easterner can be tricked into thinking that not much happens in such a place. But now, from the hinterlands, comes a potentially big national story.
Thanks to the actions of 50 legislators in a state with 750,000 people, abortion could well become a first-tier national political issue over the next few years. With South Dakota now poised to ban all abortions except those required to save a woman's life - the bill enacted last week needs only the Republican governor's signature, which is expected soon - we can expect a long countdown until the inevitable court case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, everybody in the increasingly fragile Republican coalition will be put on the spot...especially those GOPers who want to run for president.
Remember, the party's conservative grassroots wants all abortions banned, and the first major step toward that goal would be a high court renunciation of Roe v. Wade. The Republican party platform essentially echoes those desires. The South Dakota bill has been designed as a direct challenge to Roe. So, the big question will hang out there for awhile: Do the Republican presidential candidates favor or oppose the South Dakota bill? The conservative base has a new litmus test on abortion.
The early returns are already revealing. John McCain suggested on ABC two days ago that he thought the bill was too restrictive. He hedged a little, saying that he was unfamiliar with South Dakota's "technical" aspects, but he did say that he has always supported abortions in cases of rape, incest, and the imperiled life of the mother (actually, he said the "health" of the mother, but a McCain flak later said that he meant "life").
So, if he was governor of South Dakota, would he veto that bill? He replied, "If that (bill) is in keeping with (his position), yes, but I don't know..."
Wow, did the Straight Talk Express blow a tire? A flat-out endorsement of the South Dakota ban would please many of the social conservatives whom McCain has been assiduously trying to woo -- but it could tick off a lot of the moderates and swing voters who still seem to view McCain as an independent maverick.
Anyway, another '08 hopeful, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, is all for the South Dakota ban. But yet another, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts (the star of my Monday post) is said by a spokesman to be undecided about the ban.
Let the squirming begin.