WASHINGTON – Abortion-rights advocates are standing by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) despite his comments in an interview that he would be open to nominating anti-abortion judges.
Kerry told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he would consider a judicial candidate who disagrees with his support of abortion rights as long as it doesn't lead to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade (search), the landmark 1973 ruling that made abortion legal.
Hours later, as fellow Democrats and abortion-rights supporters sought clarification, Kerry issued a statement pledging not to appoint anyone to the Supreme Court who would undo abortion rights. He left open the possibility of appointing anti-abortion judges to lower courts.
Leaders of the abortion-rights movement said they will continue to support Kerry over President Bush, who supports abortion only in cases of rape or incest or when a woman's life is endangered.
"There's a huge difference between Bush and Kerry on choice and this is not going to undermine the pages-long documentation that Kerry is pro-choice," said Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of NARAL Pro-Choice America (search).
Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund (search), which has endorsed Kerry, said, "I'd like to hear him use language that is stronger."
After a day of meetings in Washington, Kerry was returning to the campaign trail Thursday with a day trip to a Philadelphia high school. The Massachusetts senator was announcing his plan to get 1.5 million more people enrolled in college by 2009 by expanding programs to get at-risk youth ready for higher education, simplifying student-aid applications and offering a tuition tax credit at the start of the school year.
Kerry planned to return to Washington on Thursday afternoon to vote on the federal budget.
The presumptive Democratic nominee spoke to AP reporters and editors shortly before a private meeting with independent candidate Ralph Nader. Kerry didn't ask Nader to quit the presidential race despite widespread Democratic fears that his candidacy could ensure Bush's re-election.
"In the end, I hope I can make people aware that a vote for Ralph Nader is a vote for George Bush," Kerry said. "A vote for John Kerry is a vote for the principles and values they care about."
In the hourlong interview with the AP, Kerry covered a range of issues, from the economy, gun rights and his differences with Bush to Mideast violence and the mounting death toll in Iraq.
If elected, Kerry promised that virtually all U.S. combat troops will be out of Iraq — away from "the death zone" — by the end of his first term.
He grudgingly gave Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress credit for the creation of 900,000 jobs this year, echoed the administration's views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and seconded Bush's decision to nominate Alan Greenspan for a fifth term as chairman of the Federal Reserve. But those were fleeting passes at bipartisanship as Kerry spent the bulk of the session criticizing Bush.
On the Supreme Court, Kerry said he has voted in favor of "any number of judges who are pro-life or pro-something else that I may not agree with," some of whom were nominated by Republican presidents.
"Do they have to agree with me on everything? No," Kerry said. Asked if they must agree with his abortion-rights views, he quickly added, "I will not appoint somebody with a 5-4 court who's about to undo Roe v. Wade. I've said that before."
"But that doesn't mean that if that's not the balance of the court I wouldn't be prepared ultimately to appoint somebody to some court who has a different point of view. I've already voted for people like that. I voted for Judge Scalia."
Aides said later that "some court" was not a reference to the Supreme Court, only lower federal benches. In his clarifying statement, Kerry said, "I will not appoint anyone to the Supreme Court who will undo that right" to an abortion.
But Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Bush's re-election campaign, said Kerry was trying to have it both ways. He noted Kerry's promise during the primaries to nominate to the high court only those individuals who support abortion rights.
"John Kerry's reversal today on appointing pro-choice judges shows a startling lack of conviction on an issue that someone seeking the presidency should approach with principled clarity," Schmidt said.
Kerry said he regrets his vote for Scalia, saying he didn't see at the time of the vote in 1986 "such a level of ideology and partisanship" that he now sees in the justice.