WASHINGTON — Republicans are so close to their goal of overturning Roe v. Wade that they can taste it. But suddenly, to some facing tough re-election fights, it doesn't taste so good.
President Donald Trump's nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace the liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court has awakened supporters of abortion rights to the prospect that the landmark 1973 ruling could be doomed if she is confirmed.
At a debate in October 2016, Trump predicted that if he added three new members to the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade would be gone: "If we put another two or perhaps three justices on, that will happen. And that'll happen automatically, in my opinion, because I'm putting pro-life justices on the court."
But in last week's debate, he made a startling retreat. When Democratic nominee Joe Biden said Barrett's nomination puts abortion on the ballot and raises the stakes for the court, Trump interjected to disagree. "It's not on the ballot," he said. "You don't know her view on Roe v. Wade."
The sudden turn to downplaying a goal that Republicans have chased for decades reveals the political dangers that always lurked if they were in a position to succeed. In election after election, the issue roused conservative voters without igniting an equivalent backlash from the majority of Americans who, surveys say, favor legal abortion and may have taken it for granted.
"Republicans were in a really good position before in terms of electoral strategy. They were in a sweet spot where they could speak to it but never had to run the risk of actually overturning Roe," said Joshua Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Denver and author of "The New States of Abortion Politics."
"Now they face the real risk of backlash," he said. "It's that metaphor of the dog catching the car — now what do we do?"
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A comprehensive 2019 study of attitudes toward abortion by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of U.S. adults oppose completely overturning Roe v. Wade, while 28 percent support overturning it.
Support for preserving Roe was lopsided among key groups of women who are already skeptical of Trump, according to internal Pew Research Center survey data provided to NBC News.
Female college graduates oppose overturning Roe v. Wade by 79 percent to 20 percent, Pew found. Women who identify as politically independent oppose overturning Roe by 74 percent to 22 percent. And suburban women oppose overturning it by 74 percent to 22 percent.
Some vulnerable Republicans are soft-pedaling or sidestepping the issue. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, who describes herself as pro-life and faces a highly competitive re-election bid, said last week in a debate that the chances of Roe's being overturned were "very minimal."
Asked at a debate Saturday about the possibility that a Supreme Court with Barrett on it could do away with Roe, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said only that Trump's nominee would "decide Roe v. Wade on the merits" before pivoting to his support for outlawing abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Graham, chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, which will oversee Barrett's confirmation proceedings, is in an unexpectedly tough re-election fight.
Kellyanne Conway, a former senior adviser to Trump and veteran Republican pollster, said Democrats are out of step with most Americans who support some limits on legal abortion.
"Most Americans support reasonable restrictions on abortion; majorities oppose partial-birth or late-term abortion, sex-selection abortion and such," Conway said in an e-mail, positing that survey language like "completely overturning" may be fueling the opposition, because many Americans don't know precisely what the Roe ruling did.
"Traditionally, political intensity and electoral engagement have favored pro-lifers," Conway said. "They are more likely to cite abortion as a decisive factor in whether, and for whom, to vote." She noted that Democrats didn't mention the word "abortion" even once at their August convention, while Republicans mentioned the issue 31 times at their convention.
If Roe v. Wade is eliminated, states would be allowed to criminalize abortion. Some experts doubt that the Supreme Court would formally overrule the decision for fear of a political firestorm, but conservative justices could uphold state-level rules that make abortion all but inaccessible.
"I see them really ramping up what they've already done, which is to open up a lot of room for states to essentially regulate abortion out of existence," Wilson said. "It's safer for the court itself" and better for the Republican Party's interests, he said.
"It mitigates the backlash," he said. "Because it's not the simple headline of 'Roe Is Overturned.' Rather, it's the slow and tight constraining."
Fueling the issue is that Barrett, a federal appeals judge who is a favorite of conservatives and white evangelicals, signed on to a newspaper ad in 2006 that called Roe v. Wade "barbaric" and a "raw exercise of judicial power," as first reported by The Guardian. She didn't disclose her participation to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Charmaine Yoest, a vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation who works on health policy and women's issues, said Barrett's "private and personal opinion" doesn't make her rulings on the issue of abortion predictable.
She dismissed the Democrats' "apocalyptic talk" of abortion's being outlawed, noting that states would be able to make that decision. "A majority of Americans may say we don't want Roe necessarily overturned tomorrow but we do support common-sense regulations," she said.
Democrats are counting on the issue to fuel their advantage in the election.
"I just don't know how it benefits the GOP (particularly given how helpful the health care debate was for Dems in 2018) to have Dems able to mobilize suburban women around losing pre-existing conditions protection, and reproductive rights for them and their daughters," Cornell Belcher, a pollster who worked on President Barack Obama's campaigns, wrote to NBC News.