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Vice Presidential Debate

Will 2016 Vice Presidential Debate Bring Abortion to Forefront?

Kaine stance on abortion rights an evolution 4:49

The next president will determine the future of abortion rights, by almost certainly filling the ninth seat on the Supreme Court and possibly more justices to come. She or he will have the power to decide whether Planned Parenthood's non-abortion funding stays in the federal budget; whether to pass new restrictions on abortion or make it easier to get one; and will appoint executive branch positions that will decide whom to prosecute and where to dole out funds.

The chasm between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on these issues could split the continent. And yet just over a month before Election Day, the issue so far has played a sleeper role in the presidential campaign. It may yet come to the forefront in Tuesday's vice presidential debate.

Trump running-mate and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence's anti-abortion record has provided comfort to social conservatives and is an obvious lightning-rod for Clinton's base. Clinton's running-mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, has a complicated, even contradictory, history on abortion, which sometimes diverges from the top of the ticket, notably on Medicaid funding for abortion. He says he personally opposes abortion but does not want to legislatively restrict it.

That the subject of abortion has so far lurked beneath the surface has irked supporters of abortion rights, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, All Above All Action Fund and Ultraviolet. They thought it was underplayed during the primary debates and wanted NBC's Lester Holt to pose a question about it in the first general election debate. (Abortion did not come up at all.)

Mike Pence on preparing for VP debate 1:59

The woman who leads Trump's anti-abortion coalition, Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser, has previously said she believes Mitt Romney lost in 2012 in part because he failed to galvanize anti-abortion voters by painting President Obama as extreme. (A representative for Dannenfelser did not respond to an interview request.)

Clinton could theoretically present an opportunity for such a contrast: Dawn Laguens, the executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which has endorsed Clinton, called her "the boldest candidate ever when it comes to women's health and women's rights."

But Trump is an unpredictable advocate for that case. When the topic has turned to abortion, the Republican nominee's ever-shifting positions on abortion policy — at one point, three in one day — has made his base nervous and presented a challenge to his opponents.

Dannenfelser was among the conservative activists who preferred Ted Cruz during the Republican primaries because they worried about Trump's previous declarations, including telling NBC News in 1999 that he was "very pro-choice," and his ongoing praise of Planned Parenthood.

Trump famously told MSNBC's Chris Matthews in March that "there has to be some form of punishment" for women who have abortions, before retracting it. Anti-abortion groups swiftly repudiated the statement, saying they only want to prosecute doctors.

But Trump's subsequent list of presumed anti-abortion picks to the Supreme Court and his choice of Pence have since helped his case with these activists.

Kaine & Pence hunker down for VP debate prep 2:29

"Mike Pence was working to defund Planned Parenthood before it was cool," Dannenfelser told Breitbart this week.

Pence's long anti-abortion track record includes most recently signing legislation banning abortion in the case of fetal anomaly and requiring women who have abortions to arrange for cremations or burials for all embryonic or fetal remains. (It has been temporarily blocked by a federal court.)

As for Kaine, he had a mixed record on abortion rights as Virginia's governor but earned 100 percent scores from NARAL and Planned Parenthood as senator. "I've taken a position which is quite common among Catholics," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I've got a personal feeling about abortion, but the right role for government is to let women make their own decisions."

That hasn't thrilled many abortion rights activists, who have been pushing for a less apologetic and bolder stance -- and gotten one from Clinton.

It also hasn't satisfied groups like the National Right to Life Committee, whose president, Carol Tobias, said, "Sen. Kaine is good at hiding behind his Catholic background -- but no one should be fooled. His record, and his openly declared legislative goals, are as pro-abortion as they come."

Whether these nuances will be parsed in the vice presidential debate Tuesday or beyond remains to be seen.