Abortion isn't usually a major issue in presidential campaigns.
But this year is different.
Both President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are putting the issue front and center, including official campaign-produced ads.
That's a big change from many of the previous presidential races, where the campaigns normally let surrogates do the talking about one of the most contentious issues in politics.
That's because in both cases candidates wanted to secure their base voters — those who support abortion rights in the case of Democrats and those who oppose them for Republicans — without antagonizing the minorities in each party who hold the other view.
This fall, however, GOP challenger Romney has been walking an interesting tightrope — appearing to moderate his position on the one hand, while maintaining a strict anti-abortion stance on the other.
Perhaps even more curious is the fact that those very ardent anti-abortion Republicans — some of the same ones who worried that Romney might be too moderate on abortion during the primaries — don't seem to be that worried right now.
"I'm confident that the Romney administration is going to stand for the principles of protecting life, of protecting conscience that have been the mainstay of what their campaign has been saying all along," said Anna Franzonello, staff counsel for Americans United for Life.
Yet they seem to have been ignoring the fact that some of his surrogates have been trying to convince more moderate voters that Romney really wouldn't be such a threat to abortion rights.
During the Republican National Convention in September, Romney's sister Jane told a reporter that a ban on abortion is "never going to happen" with her brother in the White House. And just last week, former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., told a group of Jewish voters in Ohio that they should not fear an overturn of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision, should Romney become president.
"President Bush ... had two Supreme Court picks, [and] Roe v. Wade wasn't reversed," Coleman said.
So what explains all this? Ed Kilgore thinks he knows. Kilgore is a senior fellow at the Democratic centrist think tank the Progressive Policy Institute and author of the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog. He says that, Coleman's claim notwithstanding, anti-abortion forces know they are now within striking distance of achieving that ultimate goal — overturning Roe.
"According to just about every court watcher, thanks to two appointments to the court by George W. Bush, there are almost certainly four justices on the court right now that are prepared to either reverse or significantly modify Roe," Kilgore said.
And with four justices older than 70, it's considered highly likely that the next president will have at least one chance to appoint that pivotal fifth vote.
But Kilgore says there's another reason reproductive rights are so front and center this year. Republicans actually brought up the issue first.
"Republicans decided near the end of the primary season, actually, that they had a big opening to go after the Catholic vote based on the administration's contraception coverage mandate — which Republicans and some cultural conservatives treated as an invitation to mandatory coverage of abortion pills," he said.
Republicans also went strongly after funding for Planned Parenthood, something Franzonello of Americans United for Life defends.
"They're trying to paint Mitt Romney as being the one who's so extreme when he says, 'We're going to cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood,' " she said. "What we've seen from the Obama administration is the extreme on the other end, too — that where states have wanted to cut their ties with the abortion industry, the Obama administration has injected itself and said, 'No, you can't do that.' "
The administration has, in fact, moved to block both Texas and Indiana from cutting off funds to Planned Parenthood, citing federal law that requires that women be allowed to choose their own providers of family planning and other federally covered services.
But Kilgore says that while in previous campaigns Republicans may have had the upper hand by focusing on the least popular and most controversial abortions, Republicans take on more popular issues like contraception at their peril.
"It's reminded people that these aren't folks that just want to maybe ban a tiny percentage of outrageous-sounding abortions — late-term or abortions for reasons that people don't acknowledge as legitimate — but rather a full-scale assault on all legalized abortion and on forms of contraception," he said. "The dirty little secret of the right-to-life movement is that an awful lot of them think that practices that nearly all Americans consider contraception — everything from Plan B to intrauterine devices to the pill — they regard those as abortion devices, not as contraceptives. And anything that draws attention to the radicalism of conservatives on contraceptives is really bad news for Republicans."
Franzonello, however, says it's President Obama who's been the radical. "It really has been an extreme four years," she said, citing White House action on issues like embryonic stem cell research and conscience protections for health care workers.
Complicating the debate this year has been a series of missteps by Republican House and Senate candidates, starting with Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's now infamous claim last summer that women who are the subject of "legitimate rape" can somehow prevent pregnancy. Indiana Senate hopeful Richard Mourdock is now trailing in the polls after he said that pregnancy following rape "is something God intended to happen." And, before walking the statement back, Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh said that abortion is never needed to save a woman's life, thanks to "modern technology and science."
"As long as you have Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock and Joe Walsh and others reminding people that this is an argument within a coalition that wants to ban abortions generally, over whether to exempt a handful or an even tinier handful, it doesn't work very well for Republicans," Kilgore said.
In the end, though, as always, it depends on which side is able to turn out its voters. And that won't be known until the votes are counted.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.