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For many politicians, middle ground is a refuge from the abortion wars

PROVIDENCE --The students and professors who had come to hear Senator John F. Kerry last week at Brown University were mostly unabashed liberals who wanted to pay tribute to their 2004 standard bearer.

But when one student lobbed the softball question -- ''What can we do to protect a woman's right to choose?" -- Kerry tried to challenge his audience by deviating a bit from liberal orthodoxy.

He urged the crowd -- and the country -- to consider abortion in less divisive terms.

''I've never met anyone who's in favor of abortion," Kerry said. In the 2004 presidential debates, Kerry said, abortion came up only once. (Actually, it was broached twice).

He said he believes there should have been a whole debate just on that issue, because it dominates so many people's political views.

But as Kerry went on, mentioning the need for ''education" (presumably sex education) and adoption as an alternative to abortion, the crowd grew ominously quiet. When Kerry finally restated his bottom line --that he would always defend the rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies -- the crowd erupted in applause, as if everything Kerry had said earlier had served only to clear his throat.

Kerry is not alone among Democrats in calling for moderation on abortion. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York made headlines by saying in January: ''There is no reason why government cannot do more to educate and inform and provide assistance so that the choice [of abortion] . . . does not ever have to be exercised."

But as Democrats such as Kerry and Clinton try to inch toward a middle ground on abortion, they are raising the question of whether any such land exists.

If the middle ground is really just a guarantee of abortion rights combined with education about contraception, a longtime liberal priority that is strongly opposed on the right, and education about adoption, a conservative priority that is shared by most liberals, there is nothing new to entice anyone to move to a new middle.

Not that anyone seems eager to move.

As evidenced by the hearings into John G. Roberts Jr.'s nomination to be chief justice, abortion remains a great divide. Senators on both sides performed a Dance of the Seven Veils to try to entice Roberts into offering his views on this most polarizing issue, but Roberts stood firmly on the sidelines, like a bashful bachelor at a church social. That seems to be the only credible alternative to being prochoice or prolife: pro-not-telling.

But what Kerry and Clinton may really be searching for is not middle ground, but a vernacular that can signal to political independents that they are willing to rise above partisanship -- that they are not unmindful of the other side. This is not so much a position on abortion as a position on the abortion debate, decrying the polarization, and hoping to lead people to the Valhalla of consensus, even if there is no consensus. (It is the hoping that counts.)

President Bush has mastered this kind of language better than anyone -- managing in the same sound bites to reassure the right wing that he is adamantly opposed to abortion, and to signal to moderates that he, too, dislikes the righteous tone of activists on both sides.

''I think it's important to promote a culture of life," Bush said at the third presidential debate last October. ''I understand there's great differences on the issue of abortion, but I believe reasonable people can come together and put good law in place that will help reduce the number of abortions."

Once Bush starts talking about what he considers good laws -- inflexible parental-notification requirements, bans on late-term procedures -- both sides repair to their trenches; the moderation is a matter of tone only.

Maybe tone matters. During the Roberts hearings, liberal senators used legal euphemisms for abortion rights -- ''constitutional rights" -- and conservative senators used code for overturning abortion rights -- ''exercising judicial restraint" -- so frequently that most of the television audience tuned out, perhaps unsure of what was being discussed.

But once abortion is mentioned, most people know where they stand, and it may be beyond the ability of even the most dexterous politicians to move them.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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