NEW ORLEANS — Trying to distinguish themselves in front of an important group of social conservative activists, Republican White House hopefuls on Friday used the National Right to Life Convention to share personal stories and detail the abortion restrictions they’ve helped write into law.
The question now is whether the scramble helps or hinders an anti-abortion movement seeking unity as Republicans look to win back the presidency next November.
National Right to Life Political Director Karen Cross urged the assembly to “make a decision right now that the issue of life trumps all else.”
“There is no such thing as the perfect candidate,” she warned.
Carol Tobias, the group’s president, argued in an interview that President Barack Obama benefited in both of his national victories from social conservatives who didn’t back John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012.
“The quickest way to defeat a pro-lifer,” Tobias said, “is to fall in love with your candidate and then get your feelings hurt when they don’t win the nomination.”
The candidates gave repeated nods to those sentiments, praising each other and hammering Democratic favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton, who supports abortion rights. Still, they spent most of their energy asserting their own conservative supremacy on the issue.
Santorum boasted of how he sponsored the federal law that bans certain late-term abortion procedures after initially soft-pedaling his abortion stance because of Pennsylvania’s closely divided electorate.
“You know me; there’s no quit in this dog,” he said. “Go ahead and nominate somebody who’s just going to go along. Then try to convince yourself you’ll make a difference.”
Rick Perry predicted the next president will nominate as many as four Supreme Court justices – who could presumably overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationally. “If I have the opportunity to put justices on the Supreme Court, they will not be squishy,” the former Texas governor said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio explained his abortion opposition as “inseparable from the effort to reclaim the American dream … for every child,” and recalled abortion restrictions he helped pass as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
Jeb Bush, whose tenure as Florida governor overlapped Rubio’s speakership, mentioned some of the same laws in a video presentation. He did not physically attend the convention.
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, has never held elected office, but he blasted abortion providers as “evil.”
Tobias said her group doesn’t wade into primaries in part because it’s hard to find meaningful distinctions between candidates, though she acknowledged the campaigns will find them.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie supported abortion rights earlier in his career, something he generally avoids talking about now.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker celebrated passage of a new state ban on most abortions beyond the 20th week of pregnancy. Yet late in his 2014 re-election campaign, he aired an ad in which he affirmed his abortion opposition while emphasizing that Wisconsin law “leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has sponsored a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. But some conservatives blast him for voting to confirm Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees.
Tobias said those details sometimes matter to abortion opponents, but she maintained that nitpicking is counter-productive.
For many anti-abortion voters, she said, choosing a primary candidate is about “trust” and “personal feel” rather than policy. The candidates’ approaches here suggest they understand that.
Rubio and Perry talked about seeing their children on ultrasounds during pregnancy. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, talked about how he gravitated to pediatric surgery because of how much he values children.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal talked Thursday night about having to defend his anti-abortion stance in his interviews for medical school.
Santorum tells the story of doctors advising that his daughter, Bella, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder, would not have a good quality of life and could die as an infant. “There is no better way to preach the gospel of life,” Santorum said Friday, than to have school-age Bella “in the White House.”
Public opinion, meanwhile, remains divided.
An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in January and February found that 51 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 45 percent think it should be illegal in most or all cases.
At NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading abortion rights advocacy group, Sasha Bruce said that means Republicans “are fighting over a slice of the minority,” putting them at a disadvantage in November.
Tobias countered that among voters who rank abortion as a key issue in deciding on a candidate, “we win a majority of them.” Her movement’s job, she said, is to increase the share of voters who cast their vote “based on the life issue. If we do, we win.”
Bruce said her organization is focused on educating general election voters about the success abortion opponents have had limiting abortion access through state-by-state restrictions. “They aren’t overturning Roe v. Wade, but they’re just chipping away,” she said.