WASHINGTON — Watch what happens when Republicans can no longer evade the abortion issue.

After trying to have it all ways and looking silly in the process, Rudy Giuliani finally came out and restated his support for a woman’s right to choose.

If he sticks with his decision, Giuliani will end the free ride his party has enjoyed on an issue that’s supposed to be about morality, but has more often been used cynically to harvest votes.

Giuliani will also test the seriousness of those who claim that abortion is the decisive issue in the political choices they make.

Will conservative Catholic bishops and intellectuals, along with evangelical preachers and political entrepreneurs, be as tough on Giuliani as they were on John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign? If they are not, how will they defend themselves against charges of partisan or ideological hypocrisy?

Republicans in power have done remarkably little to live up to their promises to anti-abortion voters. Yes, President Bush signed a ban on partial-birth, or late-term, abortions, and the two justices Bush appointed to the Supreme Court joined the 5-4 majority to uphold it. But all third-trimester abortions combined account for less than 1 percent of abortions.

Republicans are steadfast against using public money to pay for abortions. That leaves abortions available to better-off women who can afford them and who often vote Republican. It limits access only to low-income women, who rarely vote Republican.

What Republicans have stopped pushing, or even talking much about, is a constitutional amendment to repeal Roe v. Wade, the landmark case legalizing abortion. They prefer gauzy language that sends soothing messages to pro-lifers without upsetting voters who favor abortion rights.

Bush has been a master at insisting on his devotion to “the culture of life” while avoiding hard commitments that might offend advocates of choice. His crafty approach paid substantial dividends in the 2004 election.

The media exit poll found that 55 percent of Americans thought abortion should be “always” or “mostly” legal, while 42 percent said it should be “always” or “mostly” illegal.

Given these numbers, how did the anti-abortion candidate win? Bush took three-quarters of the votes cast by abortion opponents, but also managed to get one-third of those who favored legal abortion — meaning that his artful hedging worked. Republicans would love to keep that game going.

But Giuliani’s performance in the Republican presidential debate earlier this month showed how easy it is to fall off the abortion high wire.

When asked if it would be “a good day” for America if Roe v. Wade were overturned, Giuliani replied, diffidently, “It would be OK.” He then added that it would also be OK if “a strict constructionist judge viewed it [Roe] as precedent, and I think a judge has to make that decision.”

In other words, Giuliani would take any position as long as he could paste the stale and meaningless phrase “strict constructionist” over it — and shuck off responsibility to a judge.

He knew this position could not stand, so by the end of last week, he had reaffirmed his support for abortion rights and extolled the fact that Americans “understand how to respect each other’s differences.”

That’s true, unless a liberal Democrat happens to take exactly the same position as Giuliani, and happens to be a Catholic, as Giuliani is. Yes, the heavens came down upon John Kerry.

Speaking with a New York Times reporter less than a month before the 2004 election, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver called abortion a “foundational issue” and said of Catholics who voted for a pro-choice candidate: “If you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil? Now, if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession? The answer is yes.”

Chaput later denied he was endorsing a candidate, but suggesting that voting for Kerry would be a sin is a pretty strong incentive for the faithful to vote the other way. In the Times interview, Chaput also described the Republican Party as a “natural ally” of the church on cultural issues and declared: “It’s not like we’re with Republicans, it’s that they’re with us.”

Well, Giuliani has made clear that he isn’t “with” the pro-life movement.

I’ve talked to rank-and-file abortion opponents who feel about Giuliani the way they felt about Kerry, and good for them for their consistency. But if leaders of the anti-abortion movement don’t oppose Giuliani during the primaries with the same passion they summoned against Kerry, it will become clear that abortion is more an excuse to vote Republican than the foundational issue they claim it to be.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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