CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Democrats think they've figured out how to win the abortion debate: Don't make it about abortion.
Starting Tuesday, the Democratic convention here will feature speeches from Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, National Abortion Rights Action League president Nancy Keenan and Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who became a flashpoint in the debate over requiring Catholic institutions to pay for birth control.
But don't expect them to focus on abortion — or even necessarily use the word. Instead, they'll defend President Barack Obama's record on reproductive health and reproductive rights. And, as they have before, they'll accuse GOP nominee Mitt Romney and his party of waging a "war on women."
Obama's significant lead among women has given him a slight edge in most national and swing-state polls. Republicans attempted to beat back Democratic attacks last week in Tampa — both Ann and Mitt Romney made specific appeals to women — but Democrats think they've got the clear advantage going into November.
To keep and strengthen its standing, the party has recast its rhetoric on abortion rights. Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans favor at least some abortion restrictions. So Democrats have made the contentious issue part of a larger conversation about women's health — and that, in turn, is part of a larger conversation that depicts Republicans as opposed to equal pay and access to education for women.
"It is in a context," Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., said. "It is a context that voters deserve to know and are having an adverse reaction to."
Republicans have given Democrats plenty to talk about, including the bills blocking federal funding for abortion that House Republicans passed immediately upon taking the majority and the ongoing effort to defund Planned Parenthood, which Romney supports. And that was before Rep. Todd Akin weighed in last month on "legitimate rape."
Neera Tanden is president of the Center for American Progress and Obama's 2008 campaign domestic policy director. "In both the contraception debate and the Todd Akin debate," she said, "these issues of reproductive health have become entwined with issues around how you view women and women's rights and women's autonomy. And it was the Republican Party and their members who did that."
Democrats haven't always been this cohesive on the abortion debate. In 1992, then-Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey was blocked from speaking to the Democratic convention as part of a fight over his antiabortion views. For the next decade, Democrats lost House and Senate races in which abortion and measures to limit abortion became central, including fetal-pain legislation and late-term-abortion bans.
In the years since, the number of antiabortion Democrats in Washington has dwindled, and the party has coalesced in favor of abortion rights. Not until the past few months, though, did Democrats begin to put so much attention on issues related to contraception, women's health care and abortion.
"I've never actually seen an election — and I've been through a few — where women's basic access to health care has been so early and so often a topic of conversation," Richards said.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., described the issue in broad terms. "This is not just about the right to determine when or whether to have a family. It is about the ability to receive regular cancer screenings, maternity care and access to domestic violence counseling," she said in a statement, citing "a complete disdain for trusting women" from Republican leaders.
Tanden contrasted the Republicans' positions on women's issues, particularly abortion, to the last neck-and-neck presidential election, when George W. Bush's opposition to a constitutional ban on abortion helped him gain ground among women despite his antiabortion rights positions.
But as a Democrat, Tanden said, she's glad to see the Republicans give her party the opportunity to reframe and highlight the issue.
"For years it's been tough as a pro-choice person and a leader in reproductive policy to make younger women understand actually where the Republican Party stands. These issues haven't come to the forefront," Tanden said. "Nothing has done a better service trying to communicate what the stakes are in the election than both Todd Akin and the whole contraception debate."
The shift in language helps her party: Asking people to support abortion is a lot harder than criticizing those who are against "rights" and "health."
"In the age of the ultrasound, the framing of 'choice' does continue to resonate with a segment of voters, but not everyone. There's a lot of women for whom abortion is not a black-and-white issue, but quite gray," said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way, the moderate Democratic think tank. "Reproductive health is pretty straightforward."
Republicans for Planned Parenthood national co-chairman Randy Moody explained his support of abortion access at a Planned Parenthood rally last week in Tampa by focusing on building responsibility and preventing government intrusion.
Women who get birth control and cancer screenings are "acting on Republican principles of personal responsibility," Moody said. "If we want our country to be guided by conservative principles, we need to keep government out of our health care decisions."
But Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, said no matter how the issue is couched, dwelling on abortion and contraception-related issues at the convention is "a mistake for the party." Pointing to the wide majorities Democrats had in Congress when there were more anti-abortion members in their ranks, Day said the party can only secure its future if it welcomes Democrats who run in districts in which opposing abortion rights is a prerequisite.
Day, whose group is hosting a panel discussion on its position ahead of a big Planned Parenthood rally here, said she is deeply opposed to attempts to reframe the abortion debate.
"Let's call it what it is. Who opposes supporting women's health care? Who's going to oppose it? That's not what we're talking about," Day said. "What they're talking about is abortion, and they're talking about taking the life of a child, and we believe that there are two lives there, and they both need to be protected and they both need support."
Former Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak's amendment to restrict funding for abortion in Obama's health care bill nearly tore the party apart and scuttled the law. In the 2010 midterms, the anti-abortion movement almost exclusively backed Republicans, further thinning anti-abortion rights Democrats in Congress. Staunch anti-abortion rights Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa., for example, was among lawmakers targeted in a multimillion dollar 2010 midterm ad campaign from the Susan B. Anthony List that charged she'd "betrayed" her district and "voted for the biggest expansion of abortion in decades." She lost.
Republicans cite polls that show broad support for some abortion restrictions and accuse Obama and the Democrats of having the extremist position on these issues. Richards said that doesn't make sense — on the contrary, she called Romney the extremist for supporting defunding Planned Parenthood, abolishing the National Family Planning Program and ending insurance coverage for birth control.
"Women are just looking for help getting affordable health care, and Mitt Romney has taken aim at them foursquare, and they don't want to talk about it," Richards said. "Women are going to be the majority of voters in November, and they're looking and they want to know where these presidential candidates stand on basic issues that affect their lives, and birth control is right up there."
This doesn't seem to be a fight that Romney himself wants to have. The conservative Republican base is already suspicious of his own mixed record on abortion access — he supported it during his 1994 race for the Senate and 2002 race for governor but spoke increasingly against abortion rights as his 2008 presidential run neared. Romney called for Akin to quit the Missouri Senate race after the outcry over his comment on rape. But when Romney accepted the Republican nomination in Tampa, he did not mention abortion other than a passing pledge to "protect the sanctity of life."
Responding to questions from POLITICO about the Democratic emphasis on abortion access and women's health issues, Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg instead focused on how the economy has hurt women under Obama's stewardship.
"Women have suffered disproportionately under President Obama, with women in the workplace suffering historic setbacks. Nearly 6 million women are unemployed, and the poverty rate among women is at levels not seen in nearly two decades," Henneberg said. "Mitt Romney has and will continue to focus on the issues women care about the most — growing the economy, reducing our debt and securing a more prosperous future for our children and their children."
But those promises are belied by Republicans' actions, Schwartz said. That's provided an opening on women's issues and helps explain why her home state of Pennsylvania, which elected Casey and used to be contested territory in presidential elections, has never been within easy reach for Romney.
"Even the use of contraception is unacceptable," Schwartz said, speaking of the position that many Republicans took during the fight over birth-control coverage in February. "It's so out of the mainstream — 90 percent of American women have that as a solid, settled issue. When they're out of step with 90 percent of American women, certainly voters should know that."
POLITICO and the Tampa Bay Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.