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GOP Focus Turning to Abortion in 2016 Race

Image: Rally Held In Support Of Cutting Planned Parenthood Funding - DC

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: Anti-abortion activists hold a rally opposing federal funding for Planned Parenthood in front of the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2015 in Washington, DC. Olivier Douliery / Getty Images

Abortion has again emerged as a major issue in the presidential race as Republican presidential contenders jockey for support from the party’s conservative base.

On Tuesday, Ted Cruz released a new ad pledging the Texas senator would “prosecute and defund” Planned Parenthood, in the wake of a spate of recent videos released by an anti-Planned Parenthood group purporting to show a representative of the organization negotiating the sale of fetal body parts.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, has spent much of the past week elaborating on his opposition to exemptions from abortion bans under most circumstances.

Now, Democrats are seizing on their comments in last week’s debate and on the trail as an opportunity to exploit the party’s historic advantage with women. Hillary Clinton took direct aim at Rubio on Monday, tying his comments and Donald Trump’s recent criticism of Fox News host Megyn Kelly together as evidence the GOP is anti-woman.

Clinton Jabs Trump, Rubio While Reacting to First GOP Debate 1:30

“I think [Trump] went way overboard — offensive, outrageous, pick your adjective,” she said. “But what Marco Rubio said has as much of an impact in terms of where the Republican Party is today as anybody else on that stage, and it is deeply troubling.”

She went on to call Rubio’s stance “as offensive and troubling a comment as you could hear.”

Both Rubio and Cruz’s outspoken opposition to abortion is likely to help them win support in the all-important first-caucus state of Iowa, where Evangelical Christians make up a sizeable portion of the GOP primary electorate. The two are polling just one point away from each other in the Real Clear Politics average of polls in Iowa, and a top-three finish for either would give them a much-needed boost of momentum as the race heats up.

But while Rubio’s and Cruz’s outspoken opposition to abortion may win them support in the primary, it could cause them trouble in the general election if it turns off swing female voters and further exacerbates the GOP’s historic deficit with women.

In 2012, President Obama hammered GOP nominee Mitt Romney, and the party as a whole, for waging what Democrats saw as a “war on women” with their opposition to policies like the Violence Against Women Act and the contraception coverage included in ObamaCare. The strategy ultimately delivered Obama a 12-point win with women, which helped him overcome Romney’s 8-point advantage with men.

Democrats are again hoping the party’s historic advantage with women will help drive them to win the White House and pick up seats in the House and Senate, particularly if the party nominates a woman — current front-runner Hillary Clinton — at the top of the ticket.

And Democrats believe Republicans may be particularly vulnerable on abortion, where polling suggests a majority of americans support some forms of abortion. A Gallup survey conducted in May of this year showed just 19% of Americans believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Twenty-nine percent say it should be legal under all circumstances and a plurality, 51%, say there should be some restrictions.

But Republicans believe the Planned Parenthood videos may have given them a way to frame their opposition to abortion in more emotional, visceral terms. GOP Pollster Kellyanne Conway, who has advised candidates on how to message on abortion, says the videos could raise doubts among even pro-choice voters.

“It shocks the conscience in a way that has made very self-identified pro-choice people think twice,” she said. “They’re now saying, ‘I’m pro-choice, but I’m not pro-that — that’s a bridge too far."

“It’s put the shoe on the other foot of who’s really intractable and extreme,” she added.

That’s the tone of Cruz’s ad, which contrasts America’s tradition of helping “heal and care for millions in need,” with its recent transformation into “a country that harvests organs from unborn children,” over shots of ultrasounds, newborn infants and a clip from a video targeting Planned Parenthood.

It will run in Iowa in advance of Cruz’s Rally for Religious Liberty there later this month, an event that will highlight Cruz’s opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

Meanwhile, Rubio has been forced to clarify his stance on abortion after saying during last Thursday’s Fox News debate that he has "never advocated" for exceptions to abortion bans in the case of rape and incest. On Sunday, he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he’d support “any legislation that reduces the number of abortions, although he has never required “it must have or not have exceptions.”

But he said he personally would “err on the side of life” when making a decision under such tough circumstances.

"I personally and deeply believe that all human life is worthy of the protection of our laws. I do. And I believe that irrespective of the conditions by which that life was conceived or anything else," Rubio said.

It’s a position that puts him in line with the more conservative wing of his party, and at odds with recent GOP presidential nominees, including Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and George W. Bush. It also puts him in contrast to GOP primary opponent Jeb Bush, who supports exceptions for rape, incest and if the life of the mother is in danger.

And it gave Clinton fodder to target Rubio’s stance as “offensive and troubling."

But Conway held up Rubio’s response to the Democrat — he slammed Clinton’s “radical views” on abortion in a statement that highlighted her defense of partial birth abortions and late-term abortions as evidence — as an effective way to neutralize Democratic attacks.

“If the focus now is going to be on the rape and incest exemption, I tell candidates to say, ‘You know who I’m just like? I’m like Hillary Clinton, because her position on abortion allows for no exceptions,” she said.

“Lock arms with Hillary Clinton, because you’re just like her.”