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Denver Postcard; Life Term

In September 2005, Bill Ritter, a Democratic candidate for governor of Colorado, stood in a Denver living room, surrounded by almost 60angry, crying women. His host, Beth Strickland, was the wife of Tom Strickland--the two-time Democratic Senate candidate--and the pro-choice women she had invited to this unusual campaign event spilled out of the living room and into adjoining rooms and hallways. But the force of their emotion was directed solely at Ritter, who stood at the far end of the room in front of a piano."Don't restrict women's right to choose," the women begged. "Why do you allow exceptions for rape or incest but not when a fetus has severe abnormalities?" others demanded. One woman looked at Ritter with tears in her eyes and asked him why he didn't trust women to make their own choices.

Navigating the abortion minefield has been particularly difficult for Catholic Democrats. Buffeted on one side by the Church and on the other by party donors, they have maneuvered the landscape in recent years with all the finesse and ease of water buffalo. Early in the 2004 campaign, John Kerry caused an uproar among pro-choice supporters when he told an Iowa newspaper that he believed life begins at conception. But, at the same time, he lost pro- life support when a handful of conservative bishops suggested he be denied communion because of his history of voting against abortion restrictions. And his abortion answer during the second presidential debate didn't make anyone happy. George W. Bush found it easy to shoot down Kerry's version of the Mario Cuomo I'm-personally-opposed-but-can't-do-anything-about-it-as-an-elected-official formulation, immediately replying: "I'm trying to decipher that."

Last fall, as the women who made up his base sobbed in anger and disgust, it seemed a given that Ritter's fledgling candidacy would be undone by his pro- life views. But, just over a year later, he is his party's nominee and leading Bob Beauprez, his Republican challenger, by a margin of 12 to 17 points. He's even looking to compete in places on the Western Range that haven't elected a Democrat in decades. Most surprising of all, however, is that some of the women in Strickland's living room are among his supporters.As Democrats strategize how to win over values voters without alienating their more liberal base, they should consider how Ritter managed to succeed as a pro-life Democrat.

It would be hard to find anyone less likely to make people cry than Bill Ritter. He is tall and handsome, with the broad shoulders of a man who laid pipe to put himself through college and law school and the unnaturally large head of a newscaster or an actor. He has an open smile that doesn't leave his face when he stops shaking hands at a rally and jumps back on the campaign bus, settling in for the ride through Glenwood Canyon and grabbing an aide's cell phone to get an update on the Broncos game. As the bus pulls into a town known for its hot springs, Ritter's 13-year-old daughter, Tally,half-jokingly asks if she can skip the rally and hang out in the warm water instead. "But you'd miss my speech!" Rittermock-protests. Without missing a beat, his daughter rolls her eyes:"Dad, I could give your speech." Ritter throws back his head and laughs.

A Catholic who spent three years as a missionary in Zambia, Ritter dislikes the label "pro-life," saying simply that he is "opposed to abortion." This opposition dates back to his childhood as the sixth of twelve children growing up on the Eastern Plain. When he was 13,his father left the family, and, the next year, Ritter won a scholarship through his church to attend a Catholic seminary in San Antonio for his freshman and sophomore years of high school. The Oblate priests he met there made a deep impression on him; two decades later, as a rising star in the Denver District Attorney's(D.A.) office, Ritter moved his wife and young son to Africa for three years to run a nutrition center that was part of a mission the priests had inherited in western Zambia.

Aids was just beginning to ravage the continent, and, in response to the epidemic, Ritter took a controversial position for a devout Catholic: He started teaching condom use to the women who came to his nutrition center. But he remained opposed to abortion. In 1993,when Governor Roy Romer appointed him to fill a D.A. vacancy,Ritter attracted some opposition from the National Abortion Rights Action League because of these views.

Elected to the position himself in 1996 and 2000, Ritter was a popular D.A. who promoted crime-prevention policies, requiring his prosecutors to "adopt" public schools and to consider treatment alternatives instead of incarceration for drug offenses. In both2002 and 2004, he tells me, he considered a run for U.S. Senate. He was chastened, however, by Harry Reid's warning that he could expect to lose "a third of your money" because of his pro-life views. The political picture became even more complicated in the presidential election year, as some Catholic leaders in Colorado told voters that they could be denied communion for supporting a pro-choice candidate. But, once again, Ritter took an unusual stance. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held their annual meeting in Denver that year, Ritter penned a harsh article rebuking the Church's politicizing of abortion. If it continued, he warned, the result would be fewer Catholics in public office.

Term-limited, Ritter stepped down as D.A. at the end of 2004 and began to seriously put together his campaign to run for governor,relying on a standard Democratic platform of education, health care, and economic development. But he wasn't getting any traction with the pro-choice activists and donors who control the Democratic primary process. So he contacted several key Democratic women and asked them to host a small campaign event at which he could meet their friends.

Facing the group of women in Beth Strickland's living room, all of whom wanted him to tell them he wouldn't restrict a woman's right to choose, Ritter had two options. He could take the Cuomo/Kerry approach and allow that, while he opposed abortion personally, that position wouldn't influence his views as governor. Or he could stand firm, explain what he believed, and hope they respected him for it. The first option would be tempting for anyone in Ritter's situation. And it was a familiar straddle--most Catholic Democrats who had been elected in the '80s and '90s opted for some version of the position. But it carried political risks as well. In order to win the governorship, Ritter would need to capture the exurbs that went to both Bush and Democrat Ken Salazar in 2004. Voters in counties like Larimer and Arapahoe have little patience for clever positioning. What they likely heard in Kerry's convoluted abortion explanation was that he wanted credit for being opposed to abortion,but he wasn't so Catholic that it meant anything to him.

The meeting with Ritter, several participants said, was the most uncomfortably candid political gathering they'd ever attended. From the start, the questions were aggressive and emotional. Even so,Ritter still went with the second course: "I told them I could not commit to any of the hypotheticals they were presenting because of my opposition to abortion." But he gave it two important twists.The first was that he made a clear distinction to the gathering of women between being pro-life and pro-life. He would have no agenda to change the current law regarding abortion as governor. He would overturn an executive order issued by Republican Governor Bill Owens disqualifying women's health clinics from getting state funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs if they also provided abortions. And he would sign legislation allowing emergency contraception, a bill that Owens had vetoed. It was an approach that no self-respecting pro-life Republican could afford to take.

The second twist would be more important for the voters outside Strickland's house. Ritter took the traditional Catholic Democratic line and improved upon it, essentially saying, "I am personally opposed to abortion, and I intend to use my position to lower the abortion rate." By reducing abortion rates through prevention, not restriction or criminalization, Ritter promised to let his faith inform his politics without imposing his beliefs on citizens. And it gave him credibility when he said of his faith, "You don't check it at the door of the governor's office."

Ritter's answers didn't satisfy all, or even most, of the women at the morning gathering. Some were still crying as they left the house. But others were impressed that he had shown up, listened carefully to them, and stood his ground. "Some people came out of the meeting," said Ann Frick, one of the event's co-hosts, "and said, `He and I don't see eye-to-eye, but he'll be thoughtful and take our concerns into account.'"

The Democratic Party in Colorado spent close to an entire year looking for a suitably pro-choice candidate who could oppose Ritter in the primary. But, despite near-constant news coverage of the Democrats' frantic search, Ritter plowed ahead, answering questions about his abortion position, he says, "in about five out of six phone calls I made for money."

This head-on approach is different than that of many older Catholic Democratic politicians, who privately share Ritter's views but have publicly adopted the pro-choice mantle. These Catholic Democrats aren't worried that expressing pro-life views would cost them votes--in fact, a majority of Americans (62 percent) believe that there should be some restrictions on abortion short of outlawing it completely. But they do fear losing dollars from pro-choice donor sand PACs.

A new generation of Catholic Democrats--which, in addition to Ritter, includes Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Pennsylvania Senate candidate Bob Casey, and Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio--disdains this political tip-toeing and wants to tap into the pro-restriction voters, 56 percent of whom supported Bush in 2004. They are standing up to both their church and their party by supporting birth control and insisting on a lower abortion rate. And they are putting substance behind this position. In September, Ryan introduced legislation in the House that includes a combination of prevention measures-- funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs, improved access to contraception--and support for women who want to have their babies.

But Casey won his party nomination because of the iron fist of Senator Chuck Schumer, and the other pro-life Democrats have faced little opposition to their abortion views. Ritter, in contrast, has battled on his own. One at a time, he won over supporters by convincing them that it was possible to be pro-life without wanting the Democratic Party to change its stance on Roe v. Wade. Finally,after several potential challengers had come and gone, Ritter walked through the Democratic primary in May with no opposition.

These days, the abortion issue only comes up when Ritter's opponent raises it, and almost everyone agrees it's a desperation move as Ritter surges in the polls. Ritter has successfully taken abortion off the table. He has illustrated how people who answer to the labels "pro-life" and "pro-choice" can still reach agreement on the value of reducing abortion rates through prevention of intended pregnancies and not by locking up doctors and women. If the conversation Bill Ritter has started in Colorado spreads throughout the country, there may be many more angry meetings and tears. But,when the tears dry, there may also be a Democrat in the White House.