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Abortion gets far bigger play than issue deserves

Do you know anyone who "favors" abortion? I don't. Did abortion come up for discussion around your dinner table last night?

Probably not.

Do you regard abortion as a defining issue in the upcoming national and state elections?

Of course you do. Abortion may not be a regular family-dinner-table topic, but it perpetually dominates the national political scene and sometimes even the state one as well.

My longtime friend and fellow columnist Don McKee at the Marietta Daily Journal wrote recently, "Democrats have one overriding issue when it comes to candidates for political offices and nominees for federal judgeships. That issue is abortion."

Don is dead on, and that is a tragedy.

Many Democratic candidates have allowed themselves to become so tied to the abortion issue that they must clear the pro-life/pro-choice hurdle before they can think of anything else. A Democrat - or Republican, for that matter - who tries to brush off abortion is a dead duck before making his or her first campaign speech. Extremists from both parties won't allow a pass on abortion, even if it is an issue that affects only a tiny fraction of the population and is almost universally deplored, at least in the abstract.

In Washington, the debate on the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito for the U.S. Supreme Court centers on how he might vote on abortion cases.

Conservatives celebrate because he seems to be anti-abortion. Liberals decry his nomination for the same reason.

No one appears much interested in how Alito views environmental protection, immigration, human rights, taxation or an endless number of legal matters involving economic development.

To be sure, a few senators may question Alito briefly on those topics. If they're hoping for a sound bite on the evening news, however, they will home in on abortion.

Debating abortion makes headlines. Discussing pollution puts audiences to sleep. Political consultants know that, and so do newspaper editors and TV news producers. So abortion gets the big play in the national media.

In a state election, abortion becomes slightly less important, but it is a potential campaign killer for any candidate who does not pick his or her words carefully when the topic arises.

Interestingly, being unequivocally "pro-life" has not always been a necessary ingredient for political success in Georgia.

For instance, in the 1990 contest for Georgia lieutenant governor (nine Democrats and one Republican), all but two Democratic candidates listed themselves as "pro-choice" on abortion. And an abortion-rights candidate, Pierre Howard, won election in a landslide.

(In the same year, the Centers for Disease Control reported the beginning of a significant annual decline in the number of legal abortions performed nationally. That decline continues, according to the CDC, but abortion is a bigger than ever political issue. We'll spare you another discussion of Roe v. Wade. You can get that from the talking heads on TV on almost any Sunday.)

Meanwhile, as the abortion issue competes with the police blotter and the weather report for time and space, other news in the real world proceeds:

•Thousands of state employees are fighting mad because the Perdue administration suddenly initiated plans to install a new and less comprehensive state health insurance plan. Many of the state's 600,000 government workers and teachers complain that the new policy excludes major hospitals and physicians' groups. A major blowup is in the works on this one.

•The residential price for natural gas in Georgia has risen to fifth highest in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's latest numbers. Just a few years ago, Georgia had the second-lowest residential rates.

•Much of Georgia's tourism industry is quietly opposing a legislative proposal to raise Georgia's sales tax to replace the education tax on property. A tourism industry executive points out: "Are you aware that the tax on a hotel room in Atlanta is now 13 percent? In other words, a $200-per-night hotel bill now totals $226. The conventioneer also pays a rental car tax out at the airport (to finance Philips Arena) plus a mixed-drink tax when he settles his bar bill, on top of the regular sales tax. How many straws can you load on the back of a golden goose before she quits laying golden eggs? That may be a mixed but nevertheless apt metaphor regarding our convention industry."

Those are just a few items playing out in the background, while we are subjected to less complicated but full-blown reports on abortion and similarly nonpressing items.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.