An unusually large contingent of female Republican candidates with strong anti-abortion views is heating up debate on the issue and could change the political equation in the next Congress.
In California, Nevada, Delaware and New Hampshire, the GOP nominees for seats in the U.S. Senate are women who favor outlawing most abortions. All have been endorsed by Sarah Palin, who calls herself a "pro-life feminist."
A win by any one of them would fill a void. All 17 women now in the Senate, including four Republicans, support relatively broad abortion rights.
Of the four new Republican challengers, only Christine O'Donnell in Delaware — the tea party favorite who's never held elective office — is viewed as a long shot six weeks out from the Nov. 2 election. Carly Fiorina in California, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and even Sharron Angle in Nevada — the former state legislator running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — all seem to have solid prospects.
"It is absolutely vital that we have women in the U.S. Senate on the front lines of the pro-life movement," said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion female candidates and vows to spend at least $3 million on key Senate races.
In the current Senate, Dannenfelser said, "Barbara Boxer goes unchallenged telling our pro-life men they can't speak for women."
Boxer, a liberal California Democrat seeking her fourth term, faces a vigorous challenge from Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, in a state that traditionally has supported abortion rights. Fiorina says she favors overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling establishing a right to abortion. Boxer is one of the Senate's staunchest abortion-rights advocates.
"It's been very hard for anti-abortion candidates to win statewide in California, but so far the polls are tight," said Bruce Cain, a University of California, Berkeley political scientist. "If Carly Fiorina wins this race, that would be a shocker."
The four Republican women now in the Senate — Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — vary in their stances on restricting abortion, but all support the basic rights established by Roe v. Wade, as do the Senate's 13 Democratic women.
Plenty of male Republican senators are ardent foes of abortion, but anti-abortion activists yearn to add at least one women to those ranks — in part because they believe such a woman could be an effective weapon in questioning future Supreme Court nominees on their abortion views.
Fiorina and Ayotte say they oppose abortions except in cases of rape, incest or danger to a mother's life. O'Donnell and Angle, along with at least three Republican men running for Senate, have said they do not favor exceptions for rape and incest — prompting charges of extremism from some opponents.
"I think these anti-choice candidates are going to trip over their own hypocrisy in the next few weeks," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "They talk about no government intrusion in people's lives, yet they're wanting to interfere with women's very private medical decisions."
In California, Fiorina has tried to avoid sounding strident on abortion as she courts moderate voters. She says her views derive in part from her inability to have children and her husband's own life story.
"I believe in the sanctity of life," she said in a television interview. "In my particular case, my mother-in-law was told to abort her child, who became my husband. She chose something different, obviously, and that made all the difference in her life and mine and certainly his."
Abortion rights groups plan to step up their work in California, hoping that publicizing Fiorina's opposition to Roe v. Wade will provide a boost to Boxer. Planned Parenthood affiliates have proposed spending $1 million on the race, while EMILY's List, which backs female candidates supporting abortion rights, is reaching out to women with mailings, phone calls and ads to highlight contrasts between the candidates.
"A lot of California women don't know Fiorina very well," said EMILY's List communications director Jen Bluestein. "Once they know more, it's a lot easier to make these distinctions."
In Nevada, Reid and tea party favorite Angle are running neck and neck in the polls. Unlike most of his Democratic colleagues, Reid opposes elective abortions but believes they should be allowed in cases of rape and incest. He has run ads painting himself as more reasonable on the issue than Angle.
In one such ad, a narrator suggests that "extreme" is the appropriate word for a candidate who "says a teenage rape victim should be forced to have the baby."
Angle has strived to convey her views in gentler terms — in one interview, she suggested pregnant teens could turn "a lemon situation into lemonade" by not having an abortion. In another interview, after saying there should be no exceptions for rape and incest, she added, "I believe that God has a plan and a purpose for each one of our lives and that he can intercede in all kinds of situations."
Nationwide, the economy and health care appear to be the priorities for most voters, but polls indicate interest in the abortion debate among conservative evangelicals — a key part of the GOP base — is far higher than among the public at large.
"There's a lot of intensity in this issue, even if it isn't the hot topic now," said Dannenfelser. She credited Palin with inspiring anti-abortion Republican women to mount campaigns and described this fall's field as "the defining moment we've been waiting for."
Rival advocacy groups have chimed in with endorsements in other races featuring Republican candidates opposed to abortion and Democrats who favor abortion rights. They include GOP challenges to incumbent Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Patty Murray in Washington; the Senate race in Missouri between Democrat Robin Carnahan and Republican Roy Blunt; the Pennsylvania Senate race between Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey; and two woman-vs.-woman congressional races — incumbent Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., against Democratic challenger Tarryl Clark, and incumbent Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., against GOP challenger Kristi Noem.
EMILY's List: http://www.emilyslist.org/
Susan B. Anthony List: http://www.sba-list.org/