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Several news outlets uncritically repeated or paraphrased a claim Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) made during the May 15 Republican presidential debate on Fox News, in which he said: "I have kept a consistent position on right to life. And I haven't changed my position ... on even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for." But, as Media Matters for America has documented, McCain has in fact waffled on the issue; some conservatives have responded by accusing him of incoherence and of trying to appeal to both sides in the debate.
A May 16 New York Times article and a report by CNN chief national correspondent John King on the May 16 edition of CNN's American Morning both offered McCain's entire quote without noting his waffling on the abortion rights issue. In an article on the debate published the same day, the Associated Press paraphrased McCain's statement, reporting that McCain claimed "he has consistently favored limits on money in politics and opposed abortion," before citing McCain's quote about "even-numbered years." Similarly, on the May 16 edition of NBC's Today, Tim Russert, NBC News Washington managing editor and host of NBC's Meet the Press, asserted: "John McCain tried to define [Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov.] Mitt Romney last night by saying, 'I'm consistent. You may disagree, but I'm consistent.' "
On August 25, 1999 -- as Russert himself noted when McCain appeared on the May 13 edition of Meet the Press -- the San Francisco Chronicle reported that McCain had told its editorial board:
"I'd love to see a point where it is irrelevant and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. ... But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to (undergo) illegal and dangerous operations."
Several days later, McCain issued what the Chronicle called a "clarification," reportedly saying: "I have always believed in the importance of the repeal of Roe vs. Wade, and as president, I would work toward its repeal." He added: "If Roe v. Wade were repealed tomorrow, it would force thousands of young women to undergo dangerous and illegal operations. I will continue to work with both pro-life and pro-choice Americans so that we can eliminate the need for abortions to be performed in this country."
The Chronicle further noted that McCain's vacillation drew criticism from fellow Republicans and conservatives:
Those statements kicked up severe criticism from some Republicans that McCain, considered a plain-spoken maverick, appeared to be trying to please both sides on an issue that has been at the top of the political radar in California in recent elections. "It's very hard to finesse the issue of abortion, and Senator McCain is finding that," said Jeff Bell, senior political consultant for rival GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer. "He's got a problem. He has a down-the-line pro-life voting record in (Congress). ... To say you're going to work with both sides is easier said than done."
Bauer called McCain's statements "unintelligible," and a spokeswoman for the Steve Forbes campaign accused the Arizona senator of "stuttering and stammering" on the issue.
Columnist George Will was even more blistering: "How can McCain square what he told The Chronicle with the answer 'yes' that he gave last year in response to the question, Do you support the complete reversal of Roe vs. Wade?' Or with this, from February 25 and July 22, 1998: 'I am a lifelong, ardent supporter of unborn children's right to life.' "
In 2006, a McCain spokesman reportedly told the National Journal's Hotline political newsletter that if McCain had been governor of South Dakota when that state proposed legislation banning all abortions except those necessary to save the pregnant woman's life, he "would have signed" the controversial bill, but he "would also take the appropriate steps under state law -- in whatever state -- to ensure that the exceptions of rape, incest or life of the mother were included." As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted: "[T]hat attempt at qualification makes no sense: the South Dakota law has produced national shockwaves precisely because it prohibits abortions even for victims of rape or incest."
From the May 16 edition of CNN's American Morning:
KING: McCain was quick to return fire, suggesting Romney waffled on issues like abortion, depending on whether he was courting a liberal electorate in Massachusetts or the conservatives who settle GOP presidential fights.
McCAIN [video clip]: I have kept a consistent position on right to life. And I haven't changed my position even -- on even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for.
KING: There was little new on Iraq.
From the May 16 edition of NBC's Today:
MATT LAUER (co-host): There's some momentum right now with Mitt Romney, when you think about it. He had the cover of Time magazine, a 60 Minutes profile; he's raising a lot of money -- but he's also dogged by these questions of flip-flopping on things like gay marriage and abortion and other subjects. Has he managed to define himself yet?
RUSSERT: He's trying. John McCain tried to define Mitt Romney last night by saying, "I'm consistent. You may disagree, but I'm consistent. You have different views every other year depending on the office you're running for." I think Romney's going to have to do what Giuliani did on abortion: finally decide "This is who I am. This is how I got there. End of subject."
From the May 16 New York Times article:
The moderators from Fox News allowed and at times encouraged the candidates to mix it up among themselves.
Mr. Romney sought to skewer Mr. McCain by association, noting his sponsorship of two bills that were particularly unpopular among conservative Republicans: an immigration bill that he was negotiating with Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the landmark campaign finance bill he drafted with Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat.
"My fear is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that's bad," Mr. Romney said.
Mr. McCain responded with a reference to criticism of Mr. Romney for switching positions on issues like abortion and gay rights as he has moved from the political arena of Massachusetts, where he ran for governor and senator, to running for president. "Well, I've taken and kept a consistent position on campaign finance reform," Mr. McCain said in response to Mr. Romney. "I have kept a consistent position on right to life. And I haven't changed my position even on even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for."
On several occasions, the candidates sought to divert problematic questions by trying to turn their attacks on Democrats.