Al Gore saw his opening, and he took it. Campaigning last Wednesday in Backlick, Ohio, the vice president unexpectedly tossed aside the top of a scheduled speech about energy and the environment and instead launched into a passionate lecture about the importance of the Supreme Court. All morning, Gore had been asking aides to inform him as soon as the court handed down its expected final opinions of the year. At about 11 a.m., just as Air Force Two was touching down in Ohio, he got the news he’d been waiting to hear: the justices had struck down laws in 31 states banning so-called partial-birth abortions, the controversial late-term procedure denounced by abortion opponents. But the vote was close–5-4–and the vice president couldn’t wait to seize the opportunity to raise doubts about George W. Bush. The vice president immediately reworked his speech. “The next president will nominate… perhaps four justices to the Supreme Court,” Gore warned in the new, improved text. “One extra vote on the wrong side,” he said, “would change the outcome, and a woman’s right to choose would be taken away.”
Gore’s warning was an exaggeration, to say the least. In fact, six of the nine current justices have supported fairly broad abortion rights. Still, Bush chose to downplay the decision, wary of being dragged into an abortion brawl that could put him on the wrong side of public opinion, sending moderate voters–especially women–fleeing. But he couldn’t avoid the matter entirely: Bush issued a terse statement saying he would “fight for a ban on partial-birth abortion.” Later in the week he cut a deal to keep the GOP’s hard-line anti-abortion plank in the party’s platform.