By DEVLIN BARRETT
Associated Press Writer
July 22, 2005, 10:02 PM EDT
WASHINGTON -- Democrats need to reach out to voters who oppose abortion rights and promote candidates who share that view, the head of the party said Friday.
Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told a group of college Democrats that their party has to change its approach in the debate over abortion.
"I think we need to talk about this issue differently," said Dean. "The Republicans have painted us as a pro-abortion party. I don't know anybody in America who is pro-abortion."
Dean's approach echoed similar arguments advanced in recent months by former President Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.
"We do have to have a big tent. I do think we need to welcome pro-life Democrats into this party," said Dean.
Still, he added, "I think that we must be absolutely firm in being the party of individual freedom and personal freedom, which means that in the end the government doesn't get to decide, we do."
The effort to attract anti-abortion voters comes as Senate Democrats are preparing for confirmation hearings on Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. Roberts' views on abortion are already being intensely scrutinized.
Dean did not mention the looming confirmation hearings. He discussed the abortion debate after a student questioned why the party was supporting Bob Casey Jr., a Pennsylvania Democrat challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.
The chairman tried to draw a distinction between Casey and Santorum, even though both men oppose abortion rights.
"You have to respect people's positions of conscience," said Dean. "I think Bob Casey's position is a position of conscience."
Dean, a former Planned Parenthood board member, said the difference between his party and Republicans is that "we believe a woman has a right to make up their own mind and they believe (House Majority Leader) Tom DeLay should make it up and Rick Santorum should make it up for them."
John Brabender, a consultant to Santorum's re-election campaign, said Dean's distinctions were meaningless. "It makes absolutely no sense for Howard Dean to attack Rick Santorum unless he's also attacking Bobby Casey," he said.
DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said, "Howard Dean's rants are a perfect example of why the American people have lost faith in the national Democratic party."