Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a recent entrant in the presidential race who during his more than three terms in the House has been a solid anti-abortion vote, said Wednesday his thinking has evolved and he firmly supports a woman's right to choose.

"I've never been for a Constitutional amendment to criminalize abortion or for overturning Roe v. Wade, but I have taken positions I thought would be affirming life," Kucinich said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The Ohio lawmaker dismissed suggestions that his shift is based an amendment by Henry Hyde, R-Ill., that would have maintained President Bush's restrictions on U.S. aid to family planning groups overseas that use their own funds for abortion services and counseling.

In July 2000, he voted for an amendment by former Republican Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma that would have prohibited the Food and Drug Administration from using funds to test, develop or approve any abortion drug.

And in April 2001, Kucinich voted for a bill that would make it a criminal offense to injure or kill a fetus during the commission of a violent crime.

In the interview, Kucinich argued that last year, he often voted "present" on the few occasions when the House considered abortion legislation. He described his current stand on the issue as an "expansion" of his earlier view and bristled at suggestions that he had switched based on political expediency.

"It took a lot for me in the last Congress to recognize what I saw was an agenda being developed that would divide this nation," he said.

The Democratic field is crowded with candidates who have consistently voted for abortion rights' legislation, including some who switched their stand years ago. During a NARAL Pro-Choice meeting in January, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri explained how he changed his position after 10 years in Congress. Gephardt said his Baptist upbringing taught him the procedure was morally wrong, but women who had been affected by abortion convinced him it was a choice for them to make with their God.

"Sentiment among Democratic activists is overwhelmingly pro-choice," says political analyst Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. "A pro-life candidate has virtually no chance of garnering the nomination."

Kucinich rejected suggestions that Democratic voters will be wary of a candidate who has only recently become a vocal supporter of a woman's right to choose.

"I think people want leaders to show the capacity for growth," he said, "who are thoughtful, who are ready to go deep into a question."

Abortion rights supporters said they welcomed Kucinich's new thinking.

"I'm happy that they have evolved," Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said of candidates such as Kucinich and Gephardt. "I know these candidates don't change their position on a whim."