RENO - Democrat Ed Bernstein stepped up his attack Thursday on Republican John Ensign's anti-abortion stand, but Ensign said it could end up backfiring in Nevada's U.S. Senate race.
''I will always maintain a woman's right to choose - always. It's a critical difference between John Ensign and myself,'' Bernstein said.
Ensign ''has a big zero percent voting record on women's issues,'' Bernstein said, pointing to Ensign's ratings from Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League when he served in the House from 1995-98.
''There's probably nothing more important in the election than women's issues,'' said Bernstein, a lawyer from Las Vegas who trails Ensign in the race.
Ensign, a former GOP congressman who lost by less than one-tenth of 1 percent to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 1998, said Bernstein has been trying unsuccessfully to make abortion a central issue in the race.
''If you run on it, it hurts you no matter what side you are on,'' Ensign said.
Bernstein is ''against parental notification (of parents of minors who want to have abortions) and for partial-birth abortions,'' Ensign said.
''Those are two issues he is on the wrong side of. Most people don't agree with that,'' he said.
Bernstein appeared with leaders of Planned Parenthood and other influential women's groups in Reno on Thursday sporting a National Abortion Rights Action League button that read, ''It's the Supreme Court, stupid.''
The message is a play on President Clinton's campaign theme in 1992, ''It's the economy, stupid.''
It refers to the possibility the next president might appoint, and the U.S. Senate confirm, as many as three new justices to a Supreme Court sharply divided on abortion.
''Women's issues are hanging by a thread in the Supreme Court,'' Bernstein said.
''I have three daughters and I want them to be able to make their own reproductive choices,'' he said.
Ensign said in a telephone interview later that he doesn't think his anti-abortion stand will affect the race.
''Two people have run against me before on this issue and it never hurt me. I think frankly, people know where they stand on it. A lot of people are just tired of having it shoved down their throat,'' he said.
Ensign opposes abortion, with exceptions for rape or incest. He opposes federal funding for abortions in all circumstances.
''I have clearly stated my position. I've tried to focus on adoption and alternatives to abortion,'' he said.
In an appearance before about 60 women at the Atlantis Hotel-Casino, Bernstein outlined his plans for a women's agenda in his Senate campaign.
At one point, he singled out comments attributed to Ensign in a political column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on June 1 - comments Ensign says were taken out of context.
''I'm going to direct this message to John Ensign because I see some Ensign people here,'' Bernstein said.
''One of the things that really irritated me about him was when he was asked about federal funding for abortions for low-income women who were raped, his response was, 'We shouldn't have to pay for other people's mistakes.''
''That wasn't right, John,'' Bernstein said.
Bernstein later corrected the comment to say that Ensign had said, 'We shouldn't have to pay for other people's bad choices.''
Bernstein said it had the same meaning.
''What is the bad choice? Getting raped?'' he asked.
The column actually stated that Ensign was opposed to taxpayer funding of abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. It quoted Ensign saying, ''If somebody has made a bad choice, don't ask people to pay for it, especially when they don't agree.''
Ensign said the quote was taken out of context. He said he talked with the columnist, Steve Sebelius, and the columnist ''apologized for that.''
But Sebelius said Thursday, ''I stand by the quote.''
Ensign explained later Thursday:
''I was saying that in general, about taxpayer funded abortions, I don't want to pay for somebody else's abortion.''
''Recognizing that obviously rape and incest are not somebody's choice, I don't want to follow one mistake with another mistake,'' Ensign said.
''I was not saying they (the victim) made the mistake. Somebody else did that to them. But I don't want to follow that up with something worse - with a taxpayer-funded abortion,'' he said.
Ensign said Bernstein was trying to misrepresent his position.
''I think he knows exactly what he was doing. ... He is either misinformed or he is trying to mislead,'' Ensign said.