Rand Paul's first full day as a presidential candidate included a lengthy exchange over abortion — one that arguably played in his favor.
A New Hampshire reporter was pressing Paul on his views on abortion and whether he supports any exemptions from restrictions. Paul arguably dodged the question, but took the debate to a much better place for himself. He flipped it back toward Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) — and to late-term abortion more broadly.
Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she's OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it's okay to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me.
This is not, as some have suggested, a stumble, with Paul failing to answer the actual question the reporter asked. It was actually, as Bloomberg's David Weigel has already pointed out, a smart move. Paul forced the conversation toward the place where Americans are least comfortable with legal abortion: near the end of a pregnancy.
This is an area where even those who consider themselves pro-choice tend to have more ambivalent or negative feelings about the legality of abortion. You see this in polling data from Gallup, which has consistently shown that Americans become less supportive of abortion later in a pregnancy.
This is something that came up in interviews I did recently for a long story about public opinion on abortion. There were people I spoke with who considered themselves strongly supportive of abortion rights. But when they started to think about later-term abortions, their opinions changed.
"There's a point when we know the fetus is viable, and at that point the abortion would be unacceptable," Elaine Bledsoe, a 90-year-old retiree in Texas whom I spoke with, said. "Even if the woman doesn't want the child, it can go to an adoption agency."
Even before Paul, pro-life strategists have realized that fights over later-term abortions are the ones they can have — and win. Since 2011, state legislatures have gravitated toward laws that ban abortion after 20 weeks. Ten states have passed these types of restrictions over the past four years.
Weigel pointed to the positive reaction this got from pro-life advocates:
At LifeNews, Steven Ertelt transcribed Paul's answer and declared that he'd "turned the typical question on abortion exceptions around in the most amazing way." Ertelt's analysis has been shared more than 5,000 times on Facebook. TheDaily Caller reported that Paul had done something "new and refreshing"–more than 8,000 shares for that spin. The Daily Signal's version of the story scored more than 1,000 shares. At HotAir, the Paul answer kicked off a discussion thread riddled with praise for the senator.
The late-term-abortion debate is one Republicans want to be having, because it's a place where they find there is pretty widespread agreement on their side.