While the Donald Trump-versus-Megyn Kelly feud dominated the political airwaves after the first Republican presidential primary debate last week, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton argues that it was an answer uttered by Marco Rubio that should have garnered the most attention.
Clinton told reporters in New Hampshire on Monday that Trump "went way overboard — offensive, outrageous, pick your adjective — but what Rubio said has as much of an impact in terms of where the Republican Party is today as anybody else on that stage, and it is deeply troubling."
Rubio says he would ban abortion even for women who got pregnant through rape or incest — a stance he espoused during the debate and later defended in television interviews. Energized by Rubio's confident performance, his campaign tried to get as much mileage as possible from the candidate's hard-line position.
So did Clinton. And that pleased Rubio.
"Hillary Clinton holds radical views on abortion that we look forward to exposing in the months to come," Rubio said in a statement a few hours after he was singled out by the Democratic front-runner. Among other things, he cited Clinton's support for legal late-term abortions.
The potential rivals found an issue both could seize. Clinton appeals to women who are crucial to the Democratic political base. Rubio appeals to religious conservatives who will be key in early voting states such as Iowa.
Yet both strategies have a downside. By singling him out, Clinton, 67, risks reminding Republicans of the sharp generational contrast Rubio, 44, would represent if she's nominated. And Rubio imperils his ability to attract Democratic and independent voters by promoting a position that is unpopular to many — the kind of stance that can win a GOP primary but lose a general election.
"I'm Worried About Rubio's Abortion Stance," read a headline Monday on the conservative website Daily Caller. Senior contributor Matt K. Lewis called Rubio the "best positioned" Republican to defeat Clinton if the two are nominated, but noted Democrats would surely use Rubio's sound bites in TV ads. "Let's be honest, this is basically the best card Hillary will have to play," Lewis wrote.
Public opinion polls from several years ago on abortion showed a majority of Americans favored exceptions for rape and incest and to protect a mother's life. Among those supporters were the last five Republican presidential nominees — Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush — though the GOP hasn't won a majority of the female vote in a presidential election since 1988. Ronald Reagan backed an exception to protect the mother's life.
Rubio said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press that looking after the mother's health holds "the highest validity" as an exception — but said he wasn't sure that, given modern medicine, there are "any instances in which only an abortion could save a mother's life."
He also said he supports widespread access to contraceptives, including the "morning-after" pill, to prevent unwanted pregnancies. However, Rubio, who is Catholic, has opposed laws such as the Affordable Care Act that require health insurance plans to cover contraception even if employers object on religious grounds.
His campaign argues that the way he talks about abortion — with empathy — will shield him from any backlash, which is why Democrats are highlighting his position.
When NBC's Andrea Mitchell noted Monday that Clinton's campaign sees Rubio as "a real political threat," Rubio's campaign posted the clip on YouTube — but left out the previous Mitchell line about Clinton saying Rubio's "opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest is worse than the way Donald Trump talks about women."
Clinton was peppered with questions Monday about Trump. Instead, she went after Rubio.
"I don't want people to be confused here about the outrageous comments by one and just say, 'We're focused on this,' and we're going to let the fact that there should be no exceptions for rape or incest go unnoticed or unmentioned? I'm not going to let that happen," she said.
At the debate, two other GOP candidates, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also endorsed outlawing abortion without exceptions. Trump and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush both oppose abortion, but accept exceptions for rape, incest and the mother's life.
Abortion resurfaced as a campaign issue after an antiabortion group released videos of Planned Parenthood staff talking about aborted fetal parts.
In the debate on Thursday, Rubio argued with Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly when she said he opposed legal abortion except in cases of rape and incest. He countered he never "advocated" that position, though he co-sponsored Senate legislation in 2013 and 2015 banning abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later. Both bills included exceptions for rape and incest; PolitiFact.com rated Rubio's statement Mostly False.
Rubio told CNN the day after the debate that he backed the proposals because they restricted abortion, not because he favored the exceptions for rape and incest, two traumas he called "horrifying."
"I personally and honestly and deeply believe that all human life is worthy of protection irrespective of the circumstances in which that human life was created," he said. "I personally believe you do not correct one tragedy with a second tragedy."