Sep 18, 2023, 6:26am EDT

On abortion, Trump moves to the general election early

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

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The News

Republican presidential candidates spent the weekend wooing social conservatives, most of them staking out positions to Donald Trump’s right — as Trump continued to warn activists that they could lose if they overemphasized abortion bans.

“I said to politicians, they just don’t know how to talk about the issue,” Trump told the Pray Vote Stand Summit crowd in Washington, D.C. on Friday evening. “It’s a complex issue, but they don’t know how to talk about it. And if they don’t speak about it correctly, they’re not going to win.”

Trump has refused to say what federal limits he’d favor on abortion, and has repeatedly called Florida’s new six-week limit a “mistake” by Gov. Ron DeSantis — an analysis he repeated in a weekend “Meet the Press” interview. A number of Republican-led states, including Iowa, South Carolina, and Texas, have similar restrictions in place.

The former president, who spoke at two social conservative events in D.C. on Friday in addition to his NBC News interview, did not detail what specific federal limits he’d favor on abortion. “Something will be negotiated,” Trump told new “Meet the Press” host Kristen Welker. He took credit for appointing the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, but suggested he’d look to find a consensus on the number of weeks — at either the federal or state level — that fall under an abortion ban where “both sides will be happy.”

Trump’s stance and rhetoric put him at odds with some social conservative groups, like Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, which brought nearly every candidate but Trump to a Saturday gala in Iowa.


His rivals at the event spent the day taking positions to Trump’s right: Mike Pence repeatedly criticized Trump by name and reiterated his support for a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks.

“Why would we leave unborn babies in California and Illinois and New York to the devices of liberal state legislatures and liberal governors?” Pence asked Reed. “We need to stand for the unborn all across America.”

In D.C., DeSantis briefly brought up his state’s Heartbeat Protection Act, declaring that they “stood up to protect the culture of life by enacting the strongest pro-life protections in the modern history of Florida.” One day later in Iowa, the Florida governor pivoted from a question on a possible federal limit — “states had done a better job thus far than Congress” — to say he’d involve churches more in programs to prevent abortions and help mothers.

Nikki Haley, who like Trump has tried to minimize talk of a national 15-week ban, was the only candidate on stage in Iowa who rejected some social conservative demands. She reiterated her opposition to Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s blockade of military promotions as a way to stop the military from funding abortions: “Why hold them as political pawns?” (DeSantis said that he supported Tuberville’s battle against “abortion tourism.”)

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The View from Shelby and Dave

Donald Trump is already talking like a general election nominee who wants to move to where the swing votes are. He refuses to commit to restrictions that are unpopular with moderates, and so far it hasn’t hurt him with conservatives. In a Washington Post/Monmouth poll completed after the GOP debate, just 7% of South Carolina Republicans — traditionally, the least moderate of any early primary state — listed abortion as their top issue. Twice as many cited “the Justice Department being used for political purposes,” an issue almost entirely about Trump.


And, as he retains a wide lead over his Republican opponents, Trump seems more and more confident in pivoting to positions that are to the left of many social conservatives, indicating he’s growing more confident that his lead will stick — and that he’s unafraid of losing that group of voters.

Trump banking on social conservatives to stick with him despite his latest abortion remarks might just be a bet worth making: The former president overwhelmingly won the straw poll at the D.C.-based Pray Vote Stand Summit, even amid his criticisms over the subject. That’s bad news for his opponents, who, despite taking positions that more clearly align with that portion of the Republican base, haven’t been able to tear down the frontrunner.

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The View From Democrats

Democrats, who have clearly been preparing for a Trump pivot, were all over social media trying to remind reporters of his long history of statements, promises, and actions, to court the anti-abortion vote. “Trump takes credit and says that ‘without me’ there would be no six week bans. And Trump is literally campaigning on signing a national abortion ban,” Ammar Moussa, the rapid response director for Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, tweeted.

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Anti-abortion activists clearly want a Republican president willing to back federal legislation on the issue. They argue candidates should “go on offense and refocus the political debate on Democrats’ support for the right to relatively unusual late-term abortions, where polls show voters are more conflicted,” as Semafor reported back in January.