MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Just hours after President Bush signed a law banning what critics of the procedure call "partial-birth abortion," Senator John F. Kerry declared last night "there is no such thing as a partial birth," as he and the other Democratic presidential contenders sought the political support of women voters.
The Massachusetts Democrat, speaking first among the six candidates at a Planned Parenthood forum on women's issues, said: "It is a late-term abortion. They have done a very effective job of giving people a sense of fear about it. It's part of their assault on the rights of women in America. . . . There's nothing partial about their effort to undo Roe v. Wade."
The balance of the 90-minute session was tamer than the face-off the candidates had a night earlier, a cooling attributed to Howard Dean's decision yesterday to apologize for saying last week that he sought the support of Southerners who display the Confederate flag.
At one point, the candidates were asked to grade themselves as parents, and Dean sought to distinguish himself from Carol Moseley Braun, a former Illinois senator and US ambassador and the only woman among the candidates.
"Unlike Ambassador Moseley Braun, I did not nurse my child, but I did everything else," the former Vermont governor said to laughter from the crowd of several hundred.
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who had two more children after his eldest son, a teenager, was killed in a car crash, described himself as "attached at the breastbone to my kids. . . . My younger kids, they're on top of me every minute that I'm at home, which is exactly where I want them to be."
Other candidates attending the forum included Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and retired Army General Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas.
Clark said that he opposed a military policy that banned abortions on bases, even if a woman wanted to pay for it herself.
Kucinich said that, if elected, he would eliminate wage disparties between men and women by executive order, and also ensure fair treatment of both genders under international trade agreements. Braun said she would continue to oppose the death penalty, even if it were to be applied to a child killer. "Our criminal justice system has to follow our values," she said.
The forum had an undercurrent of conflict between Dean and Kerry, as the two clashed over tax and education policy.
Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.