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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

The 'big tent' of the Democrats

Shields: On the abortion issue, the pro-life GOP has been much more of a "big tent" than the "liberal" Democrats.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In what is still seen as a gratuitous snub of the approximately two out of five Democratic voters who, according to independent surveys, consider themselves to be "pro-life" on the abortion issue, Pennsylvania's pro-life Gov. Robert P. Casey was denied the chance to speak at the 1992 Democratic convention.

In Casey's place, the Clinton high command running that Democratic convention invited to speak on national TV a Pennsylvania pro-choice woman who was an obscure state representative and a Republican.

Now, some 13 years later, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, the chairman of the campaign committee to elect Democratic senators and, himself, an unswerving champion of abortion rights, has importuned and beseeched the pro-life state treasurer -- who won election, last November by the biggest vote margin in Pennsylvania history -- to be the party's 2006 nominee against two-term Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, the leader of the GOP's social conservatives and author of the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

The irony: The Pennsylvania state treasurer who in fact is running against Santorum is Robert P. Casey Jr.

Professor G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Keystone Poll and a Franklin and Marshall College professor, is not the only political observer who sees the Pennsylvania race as the most important Senate contest in the country.

As Madonna puts it, "For a lot of Democrats, this race will be payback time for what they viewed as the Republicans' 2004 targeting of (South Dakota Sen.) Tom Daschle. ... Democrats just have a visceral dislike of Santorum. He is an in-your-face, brash antagonist."

Santorum is also tough. While President Bush only makes his Social Security case before pre-approved audiences filled with admiring party loyalists, and while many GOP members of Congress duck town meetings on the thorny reforms, Santorum has held open town meetings across the state, where he has given as good as he has gotten.

Santorum, not his senior colleague, Arlen Specter, is the de facto leader of the state GOP and orchestrated the last congressional redistricting, by which the party picked up congressional seats.

The truth is that on the abortion issue, the pro-life GOP has been much more of a "big tent" than the "liberal" Democrats who have insisted upon orthodoxy from convention speakers.

Just look at the 2004 New York convention. where coveted, prime-time spots were granted to the pro-choice, pro-gay-rights governor of California and the pro-gay-rights, pro-choice and pro-gun-control former mayor of New York City. Did the Democrats in Boston hear anybody who was even mildly pro-life? Not on your life.

As a non-recovering American liberal, I believe that every human person has the right to live free from fear and from discrimination, and has the right to a share of earthly goods, including food, shelter and, yes, health care.

Every person has the right to productive work at fair wages, and each of us has a corresponding responsibility to work for the community good and to respect the rights of others.

The "invisible hand" before which so many conservatives, included among them Wall Street Journal editorial writers, genuflect can frequently be the successful creator of wealth, but is often the failed distributor of that wealth. It does not guarantee a just and humane community. That is what together we must work to achieve through the instrument of our free government.

I am a pro-life liberal who agrees with pro-choice Rep. Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, that too many on the pro-life side vote as though life began at conception and ended at birth.

It is perfectly reasonable to ask how we can call ourselves pro-life if we do not defend and protect the powerless among us, the hungry and the homeless, those struggling to survive at the margins of life -- the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker.

Will Bob Casey Jr., with his roots in working-class, Catholic Pennsylvania and having already won bipartisan praise for his two innovative terms as state auditor-general, be able to neutralize the "values" issues against Rick Santorum and make the race about economic justice, protecting and creating jobs, and healthcare?

As one of Washington's wisest and most pro-choice Democrats put it, "If a candidate of the exceptional quality of Bob Casey can't make it in our party, then we, Democrats, are doomed."

Pennsylvania will be the 2006 Senate Super Bowl.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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