For a presidential candidate who says he strongly opposes abortion, George W. Bush's reaction was surprisingly mild when he was asked at the first debate in Boston whether, as president, he would try to overturn the Food and Drug Administration approval of RU-486. "I don't think a president can do that," Bush responded.

He then spoke in general terms about his desire to bring about a "culture of life" in which abortion is "more rare" and assisted suicide and late-term abortion are not permitted. Returning to the issue of RU-486, the recently approved pill that makes possible chemical rather than surgical abortions, Bush concluded, "As to the drug itself: I mentioned I was disappointed. I hope the FDA took its time to make sure that American women will be safe who use this drug."

That's it from a strong opponent of abortion? Bush's statements were mild enough that they might have come from a centrist Roe supporter--many Roe proponents oppose late-term abortion and wish abortion itself were "more rare." Yet the Bush comments have not drawn fire from most pro-life lobbies. The day after the debate, the National Right to Life Committee--whose website is heavy with anti-RU-486 commentary--had issued no statements critical of the Republican candidate; spokesperson Laura Echevarria told Beliefnet, "We were pleased with what Governor Bush said last night."

Contrast this with the Right to Life Committee's regular denouncements of John McCain, during the Republican primaries, when McCain made any anti-abortion comment that was less absolute. McCain favored campaign finance reform, which threatens the income of some pro-life groups; Bush does not, and so mild statements from him may be more tolerable to them.

Mifepristone, or RU-486, raises many complex ethical questions, and for some may represent a moral improvement over the current regime, since the drug only works in the first six weeks or so of pregnancy, when the fetus is in early development and complex brain waves and other indicators of life have not yet begun. But for anyone who believes that life begins at conception--a view Bush has endorsed in the past--there is no moral distinction between RU-486 and surgical abortion.

Thus, one might expect that Bush would have described himself as harshly opposed to RU-486. Instead, his mild comments fall into line with the mixed stance that Republican presidents and presidential candidates have taken for the past two decades on abortion. Ronald Reagan repeatedly declared his emphatic opposition to Roe, and while in office even signed his name to an anti-abortion book, "The Conscience of a Nation." But Reagan never took any substantive action to overturn Roe and never addressed the annual pro-life marches on Washington during his two terms. George Bush, as president, said he opposed abortion but otherwise downplayed the issue; Bob Dole, the Republican candidate of 1996, said he opposed abortion but also that, because Roe rights had become law, no one should expect the situation to change soon.

This straddling viewpoint--abortion is wrong, but don't expect much change--seems to be the Republican Party's thinking on how to appeal to the pro-life constituency without alienating moderates, especially the large bloc of suburban women who are uneasy supporters of Roe. Consider that when asked if he would work to overturn FDA approval of RU-486, Bush replied, "I don't think a president can do that." Strictly speaking, that's true--a president cannot issue orders to the agency about what it legalizes. But Bush as president could propose legislation to block usage of a drug, and he avoided saying he would do so.

Richard Land, a prominent Southern Baptist pro-life advocate, said, "Most pro-lifers I have talked to today thought Bush's statement about RU-486 was technically correct, but it was weak and we wish he had made clear that, as president, he would use the bully pulpit to oppose this drug and would sign any legislation to outlaw it."

In the debates, Bush further said he would impose no abortion-based "litmus test" on potential Supreme Court nominees, saying that his first criteria was competence, noting that his choices for Texas state courts were moderates. Bush did say, "I believe that judges ought not to take the place of the legislative branch of government" and should not make social policy: many legal analysts, including some liberals, think the Roe decision was a case of the Supreme Court usurping the function of the legislature. But again, on Supreme Court appointments, Bush dodged the chance to say anything pointed about the life-choice controversy, seeming to try to signal the pro-life movement that he was still on their side without jeopardizing his chances with suburban moderates.

Al Gore, by contrast, was aggressively pro-choice. Of the FDA action on RU-486, he said, "I support that decision." Gore continued: "The main issue is whether or not the Roe v. Wade decision will be overturned. I support a woman's right to choose. My opponent does not." Gore accused Bush of using "code words" about Supreme Court nominees, to let supporters know he would pick pro-life justices but not to say this in so many words.

(Gore's "code words" evidence was that Bush has said he admires current justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who are mainly pro-life; but claiming this as proof that Bush would only make pro-life appointments requires a considerable stretch of mind-reading.) Regarding the Supreme Court, Gore was unequivocal: "I would appoint people that have a philosophy that would uphold Roe vs. Wade."