Abortion Trips Up Dole In South Carolina Debate

COLUMBIA, South Carolina -- Bob Dole flubbed a question about rape and abortion, and Patrick Buchanan made a spirited defense of the Confederate flag as the four major Republican presidential candidates debated conservative themes two days before this state's crucial primary.


With the race still wide open, the contenders gathered Thursday for a one-hour afternoon debate here, sometimes displaying the good-natured camaraderie of men under mounting pressure -- and sometimes fuming and wagging their fingers at one another.


In the debate's one unusual touch, each candidate was called upon to watch and defend his often-negative campaign advertisements.


The audience erupted when Buchanan entered the room, and some jeered at Dole's arrival. Buchanan, whose hopes in the South Carolina primary rest heavily on strong support from the religious right, sparked cheers with denunciations of abortion, the Department of Education and the "New World Order."


At the debate, the most dramatic moment came when a young woman asked: "If I am viciously raped by a brutal criminal, would you oppose a first-trimester abortion, knowing that a continued pregnancy would cause me mental and emotional anguish?"


"Yes I would," Dole responded, an answer that represented a break from his position in the past. "I'm opposed to abortion as I've indicated before." He left the issue at that.


Later, Dole realized he had erred and sought to restate his position, saying he would ban abortion, but would "support exceptions for rape, incest, life of the mother."


Buchanan began his answer to the woman's question by expressing empathy for rape victims. He then restated his adamant opposition to abortion under any circumstance, adding that if the attacker was a serial rapist, he would seek his execution. And he said he would urge a woman impregnated by a rapist to seek counseling and give the baby up for adoption.


In their replies to the young woman, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander and publishing scion Steve Forbes said they would permit a woman to make her own choice about abortion under such circumstances.


The Confederate flag issue was raised at the debate by an audience member who noted that minorities found the flag "divisive and exclusionary," but that Buchanan had defended its display.


Buchanan, noting that his great-grandfather had fought for the Confederacy, said, "that Confederate battle flag, to me, is a symbol of defiance, courage, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. I believe that everyone should stand up for their heritage. It didn't fly over slave quarters. It flew over battlefields."


On another issue, Buchanan ripped into the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying: "If NAFTA is a success, I would hate to see a failure."


The other candidates criticized Buchanan's protectionist trade policies, saying those policies will lead to higher taxes and job loss.


"We need trade. We can't build a wall around America," Dole said.