Abortion isn't the biggest issue in the presidential campaign, but in states where the election is close, it can be the difference between winning and losing.
In recent weeks, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama both have stumbled while addressing abortion and reproductive health.
McCain's difficult moment began a couple of weeks ago. Carly Fiorina, one of his top advisers, complained about health insurance plans that cover Viagra for men but not prescription birth control for women.
Two days later, a reporter on McCain's bus asked him about Fiorina's comments — and about his Senate vote against legislation to require insurance coverage for contraception.
In response, McCain said he did not know enough about the issue to give an "informed answer." "I don't recall the vote. I cast thousands of votes in the Senate," he said.
McCain looked very, very uncomfortable. And if you haven't seen that footage, chances are you will. Planned Parenthood has already turned it into a television ad.
Abortion-rights groups are trying to demonstrate that while McCain may be a moderate on many issues, reproductive health is not one of them. Nancy Keenan is president of the group NARAL Pro-Choice America.
"On the issue of reproductive choice, he's neither a moderate nor a maverick — he's wrong," Keenan said. "And I think we will work very hard to make sure people in this country understand how extreme he is on this issue."
McCain's abortion position is not something he's tried to keep secret. He has publicly said that he does not support Roe v. Wade and that it should be overturned. If he's elected president, McCain has said he'll choose Supreme Court justices like those who have already cast votes to restrict abortion rights. "I will look for people in the cast of John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and my friend, the late William Rehnquist — jurists of the highest caliber," he has said.
Even so, McCain is still seen as suspect by many Christian evangelical voters. He supports embryonic stem cell research, for example, which makes him less than 100 percent pro-life.
But he does have the unequivocal support of the biggest anti-abortion group, the National Right to Life Committee.
"He has a strong pro-life record against abortion," said David O'Steen, the group's executive director. "He opposes using taxpayer funds to pay for abortion. He supports parental notification."
Obama on Abortion
Obama's position is the polar opposite of McCain's. "What I have said is that women should make the decision in consultation with their priests, or pastor, their doctor, their family members and in consultation with their beliefs," Obama has said. "And I believe that most women don't make that decision lightly."
Obama got in a little trouble of his own on the issue earlier this month. In an interview with the Christian magazine Relevant, Obama seemed to suggest he was open to putting limits on health exceptions for later abortions.
"I have repeatedly said that I think it is entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions, as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother," he said. "Now I don't think that mental distress qualifies as health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, in which there would be real significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term."
That prompted a few complaints from feminists, including some who questioned Obama's pro-choice voting record during his years in the Illinois State Senate. But mainstream groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood are essentially looking the other way.
NARAL's Keenan called the comment one of those moments that "just happens" and that is misinterpreted. "He is right on the health exception, and he is right on reproductive choice, and he is going to be there for us 100 percent," she said of Obama.
National Right to Life's O'Steen said Obama was being disingenuous in even suggesting he would support stricter health exceptions. That's because he also supports past Supreme Court decisions and current bills in Congress that would allow health exceptions simply for mental distress.
What all this means is that neither candidate needs to worry about their base on this issue, but both have potential weaknesses: McCain with more moderate women and Obama with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's supporters, who are still suspicious of his feminist credentials.