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Abortion could split Democrats

At a breakfast meeting here the other day, one of the lapel stickers being distributed by state Sen. George Stuart identified him as "The REAL Democrat" in the contest for the Democratic nomination for governor. If you understand how Democrats conduct their intraparty contests, you know this is a signal that George Stuart is the unabashed liberal in the field making the point that his prime rival, U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson, has made too many ideological compromises to be, in liberal eyes, acceptable as the party's nominee against Gov. Bob Martinez, the vulnerable Republican incumbent.

And the fact that Stuart is taking this approach _ one that rests heavily on the emotional abortion issue _ raises an immediate question about whether Democrats here are capable of seizing their opportunity or are likely to allow the primary campaign to compromise their chance to return to power in Tallahassee.

On the face of it, Nelson is the clear leader for the nomination, although at this point neither candidate is well enough known for polling data to be reliable. The sixth-term congressman from Melbourne already has raised more than $3-million, an impressive figure for a challenger at this early stage of the campaign. He has a determinedly centrist voting record, and he is a reasonably polished campaigner who can speak knowledgeably about a wide range of state issues.

Nelson suggests that his clearly dominant financial position may persuade Stuart to abandon his challenge and thus avoid a bitter September primary.

But Stuart is adamant about his intentions to see the contest for the nomination through to the end. "I think it matters that we get a new governor who's different from what we've got," he says.

The issue on which the clearest distinction can be drawn between the two is abortion. Stuart is an unabashed supporter of abortion rights who opposes parental consent and would broaden public funding of abortions for the poor. Nelson describes himself as pro-choice and, compared to the strongly anti-abortion Martinez, could expect support from abortion rights groups. But he favors parental consent, and public funding only in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the mother's health.

The practical importance of the issue is difficult to measure at this juncture. But the history of the Democratic Party, in Florida and elsewhere, suggests that abortion is just the kind of issue that can crystallize a debate over who is "the real Democrat" and who is the pretender. And that is the kind of debate Florida Democrats can ill afford if they are to prevent the re-election of Martinez.