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Political Strategies Shift in New Abortion Landscape

For the past decade, Republicans have been on the offense when it comes to the issue of abortion. Pressing a series of popular restrictions, Republicans have painted Democrats as extreme protectors of abortion at any point in pregnancy. But with a dozen states now considering bills to ban abortion outright, this year it's Democrats who are taking the offensive, saying Republicans are the ones whose views on abortion are extreme.

In the past month, the politics of abortion have essentially been turned upside down: Republicans are shying away from the issue and Democrats are eager to take it on. Last Sunday on ABC's This Week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), was asked whether he would support a ban like the one recently signed by the governor of South Dakota, which includes no exceptions for rape or incest. Frist, who supports abortion in those cases, sought to distance himself.

"I'm not going to put myself in that situation," Frist said. "I can tell you what my feelings are, my beliefs are, and my philosophy is about it, and that's how I'd vote and vote accordingly. I am pro-life and have a 100 percent pro-life voting record."

Meanwhile, on CBS's Face the Nation, Sen. Barak Obama (D-IL) was happy to talk about his position.

"I am pro-choice, but I also think that it's important even as I indicate that I'm pro-choice, to say this is not a trivial issue and we have to listen to the profound concerns that other people have," Obama said.

What's going on is no great secret, said Rachel Lasar of Third Way, a group that develops strategies for Democrats to appeal to political moderates. Politicians in both parties, she said, are seeking the political middle that can produce a majority.

"Two-thirds of voters identify as abortion grays: They think that abortion should neither always be legal nor always be illegal," she said. "And although they lean pro-choice, they're consistently voting Republican."

Laser said that Democrats who want to win back those voters shouldn't be afraid to say they want to see the number of abortions reduced, particularly through better sex-education and access to contraception.

"There are 1.3 million abortions a year in our country. One in every five pregnancies is ending in abortion and that's too many. That's certainly too many to the average American. The average American sees abortion as a morally complex issue."

Laser said that bans like South Dakota's give Democrats a chance to gain back ground they lost in recent years opposing more-popular restrictions like a ban on so-called Partial Birth Abortion.

"The beauty of the message is if progressives define themselves as wanting to reduce the number of abortions in America while protecting personal liberties, they can at the same time define their opponents as being for reducing the number of abortions in America by putting people in jail," Laser said.

That's exactly what worries Republican Christie Whitman. The former New Jersey Governor and EPA administrator now runs a group called It's My Party, Too, which seeks to promote centrist Republicans. Whitman agrees that the prospect of more laws like South Dakota's doesn't bode well for Republicans this fall.

"People will say if you're a Republican you've got to be not just pro-life, but you've got to be this hard-edged pro-life that doesn't recognize a woman as being, really, once she's pregnant, much more than a vessel," she said. "And that has cost us in the past and will cost us."

But others think the new energy around abortion makes it an issue where Republicans can not only maintain ground, but gain it.

"We need to rein in on this killing field, which has claimed the lives of over 47 million unborn children since 1973; a holocaust, a baby holocaust," said Rep. Chris Smith, (R-NJ), who co-chairs the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus.

"And as a direct result, I think the pendulum has turned in our favor, because people are finally waking up that abortion is violence against children," he said.

As politicians tack toward the center, however, there's a big warning flag for Republicans and Democrats alike: When it comes to abortion, the most motivated voters tend to be at the extremes of the debate.

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