In terms of religious voting blocs, Bush has two major goals. First, he needs to mobilize evangelical Christians. Yes, evangelicals vote Republican more than Democrat, but their turnout in the 2000 election was not much higher than the average. Crucial to Bush's election is instilling some passion in evangelical voters.
But--and it's a big but--he has to do this in a way that doesn't scare away moderates. Not so easy.
Second, he needs to increase his share of the Catholic vote. Clinton won Catholics by 20 points in 1996, Gore did by 6 points, and Reagan by 21 points. They are a genuine swing vote. Not all Catholics vote on the basis of "life" issues, but it is still an influential factor.
The key point about the Schiavo and partial birth actions is that they are symbolically potent and practically unimportant. Jeb Bush's strong stand in favor of restoring feeding to Schiavo was thrilling to pro-life people, who are likely to view it as a genuinely compassionate and moral stand.
And yet the courts may block his authority, and even if they don't, this is a power he won't use often, if ever again. Nor will any other governors. Few families wrestling with these dilemmas will find the decision taken out of their hands. So the current political reality will likely continue: on end-of-life issues, the pro-life folks will be politically well-organized; right-to-die advocates won't be.
Partial-birth abortion is a similar case. It carries enormous symbolic importance to pro-life voters and yet will actually affect few people, which makes it unlikely to motivate a big backlash on the part of pro-choice voters.
These two actions together, on the same day, have electrified the pro-life movement. "Today is a monumental day for the sanctity of human life," declared the Family Research Council, which was started by Bush-foe Gary Bauer.
Pro-choice advocates will try to alter the symbolism, portraying it as just the first in a sweeping series of steps to take away women's rights. That's going to be a tough sell. Pro-life advocates have effectively separated partial-birth abortion from other types in the public mind. What's more, slippery slope arguments are usually too abstract to affect voting behavior. People may just say, "Well, if they start making all abortion illegal, then I'll get upset."
Democrats would do well to give up the fight on partial birth. Move on to the next issue--smoke out the GOP on what the next anti-abortion step is. On right-to-die, the Democrats should come down firmly and clearly on the side of ambiguity.