TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - She would love to be known primarily as a tax-cutter, but Gov. Christie Whitman of New Jersey cannot shake free from the divisive effects of the abortion debate within the Republican Party. Her support of abortion rights - particularly her veto of legislation to outlaw the operation critics call "partial-birth abortion" - dominates discussion about her chances of being tapped by fellow Gov. George W. Bush as his vice presidential running mate. "The right fringe, unfortunately, care more about one issue than they care about winning the presidency, and they are willing to torpedo the ability of the party to shape the agenda of this country for the 21st century," Whitman, 53, said in an interview. "Because they judge people by one issue - and not always accurately on even that one issue - they are going to say some pretty nasty stuff, and they have been," she said. Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg is among those who believe Whitman could harm Bush's chances by causing internal strife that Republicans can ill afford in their quest to recapture the White House. "The Republican right would go absolutely bananas if Whitman were nominated," Rothenberg said. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., an anti-abortion activist in Congress, said simply, "It is just not going to happen." A one-time county legislator, daughter of two rock-ribbed Republicans who held prominent roles in the party in New Jersey and nationally, Whitman burst into the headlines in 1990 by nearly defeating Democratic Sen. Bill
Bradley. Building on her strong showing in that race, she ran for governor in 1993 promising a 30 percent income tax cut. Her victory over Democrat Jim Florio, the incumbent, made Whitman the Garden State's first female governor. She moved quickly to fulfill her campaign pledge, and her office says she has enacted 37 separate tax cuts since taking office in 1994. Whitman has also made land preservation and education top priorities, establishing academic standards for public schools and proposing a 10-year plan to save 1 million acres of open space and farmland in the nation's most densely populated state. Still, she only narrowly won a second four-year term in 1997, hurt in part by the campaign of a Libertarian candidate who emphasized that he was the only abortion opponent in the race. The state constitution bars her from seeking a third term. Whitman's star was at its height in the Republican Party four years ago. Oft-mentioned as possible running mate for Bob Dole, Whitman was viewed as a woman who could break the party's glass ceiling as a member of the national ticket. In the end, she was named co-chair of the San Diego convention as Jack Kemp got the running-mate prize. The following year, the Republican-controlled New Jersey Legislature passed a bill to outlaw the late-term abortion procedure that foes call partial-birth abortion. Whitman vetoed it and advocated her own version, which included a clause permitting the procedure if the mother's health was at stake. Republican
lawmakers voted to override the veto, with support from some Democrats. As for her vice-presidential chances this year, Republican political analyst Steve Salmore, formerly of Rutgers University, said Whitman has become too much of a a lightning rod for anti-abortion factions - as shown when Gary Bauer took potshots at her during debates in New Hampshire. "It would make that issue a major issue of division in the convention. I don't think George Bush needs that," Salmore said. Whitman herself has complicated the issue. The Legislature last year passed a bill requiring doctors to notify parents before performing abortions on minors. Whitman signed it, saying it was a common-sense provision supported by the public. She denied she was trying to appease anti-abortion groups, and in fact she did not. But she also alienated abortion-rights advocates who had seen her as something of a hero within the ranks of the GOP. "She had an impressive record on choice up until this situation with the parental involvement bill," said Nina Miller, director of Planned Parenthood's political branch, the "Action Fund." "Nationally, it didn't make any pro-life groups warm up to her," Miller said, "and it only hurt her support among the pro-choice groups."
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