ARLINGTON, Va. — Mixing themes of praise and warning, former Bush Administration strategist Karl Rove addressed the 36th annual National Right to Life Convention on the Fourth of July.

Rove’s comments sparked a charged atmosphere that alternated between reverent, almost religious silence and unrestrained political boisterousness. Backed by a row of American flags that stretched the length of the stage from which he spoke, he both commended the progress of the pro-life movement and previewed its challenges in the upcoming presidential election.

Frequently credited as a key architect of faith-based politics, Rove inventoried a roster of pro-life achievements under the Bush Administration — among them, the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act (2002), the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (2003) and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (2004) — while declaring to the audience that “this president and you have been committed in a great common cause.”

That cause, Rove stated, has never presented easy choices — especially during the debate over embryonic stem-cell research.

Recounting meetings with anguished mothers and fathers convinced that research involving the destruction of human embryos could unlock medical cures for their suffering children, Rove admitted the debate was painful.

“I knew some of these people personally, and I felt for them,” he said. Nonetheless, Rove cautioned against crossing irreversible ethical boundaries.

“Every one of us passed through the stage of that small clump of cells,” Rove said, characterizing the initial phase of an embryo’s growth. “And if we begin to devalue life at an uncertain moment, we can [also] devalue life at a certain point.”

In words of tribute that might have surprised some political observers, Rove also commended pro-life Democrats, asking the audience to “think about how far the Democratic Party has come in a few short years.” Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey was barred from addressing the 1992 Democratic Convention “because his views were so anathema to that party,” Rove recalled. “And yet this year, we see discussion — serious discussion — about … pro-life running mates for the Democratic nominee for president.”

Important pro-life legislation such as the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act also passed, Rove said, owing to Democrats who joined their votes with Republicans. “These men and women who stood against party and against caucus and against platform and for life,” he said, “deserve our thanks.”

Obama’s 0% Rating

Rove warned that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is poised “to strike down all the good work that you’ve done over decades.”

Reviewing Obama’s legislative record, Rove emphasized that the senator’s message of change conflicts with the impact of his support for pro-abortion policies — support that has earned Obama a 0% rating from the NRLC and a 100% rating from NARAL.

“This is a man who stands up and says that he’s going to bring Republicans and Democrats together, conservatives and liberals together, to achieve great things for the country,” said Rove. “If you want to bring the nation together, how can you claim to do that if you are at the same time supporting the divisive practice of using taxpayer dollars to fund abortion?”

In contrast, he said, presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain is “pro-life not only in his votes, and not only in his words, but also in his personal actions.”

Relating the story of Bridget McCain, the now-teenage child adopted as an infant by John and Cindy McCain from a Bangladesh orphanage run by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Rove said few voters are aware of such personal history because McCain is “the most private person in public life I think I’ve ever met.”

A second child from the same Bangladesh orphanage was also adopted by a young McCain aide after Mother Teresa told Cindy McCain the child would die without medical attention that the McCains arranged with a stateside children’s hospital.

“It’s one thing to vote, it’s one thing to stand up and speak, it’s one thing to fill out the questionnaires,” said Rove. “It’s another thing to demonstrate your belief in a culture of life by doing two extraordinary things like that.”

Undecided voters are, Rove said, critical to Sen. McCain’s victory in the November presidential election.

NRLC officials and other pro-life leaders concurred with Rove that combating public ignorance of the intensity of Obama’s pro-abortion stance will be essential to closing the voting gap.

Karen Cross, NRLC’s political director, confirmed that “it’s a challenge, but we’re up to it.”

“It’s critically important that pro-life people acquaint themselves with [Obama’s] extreme position,” said NRLC Executive Director David O’Steen, “and educate, educate, educate from now until the election.”

O’Steen cautioned that “it’s clear that Barack Obama is going to try to appear to be a moderate on this issue to pro-life audiences, while he has pledged complete support for the agenda of NARAL and Planned Parenthood.”

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, observed that “in one sense, we’re still a long way off, politically-speaking, from Election Day, and so a lot is still to happen — and it will come out. The people who were in that room today will work hard to make sure it comes out.”

Other election issues may come and go, O’Steen remarked, but “when an unborn baby’s life is taken, it’s forever. … Until we restore the right to life to unborn children, America cannot be on a right course.”

Kimberley Heatherington is based in Fairfax, Virginia.