Republicans search for the best messenger on abortion, pitting Nikki Haley's approach against Trump's

Iowa resident Rosemary Fitzpatrick knew when she reached the breaking point with Donald Trump: It was over abortion.

Fitzpatrick said she could not vote for Trump in 2024, because he appointed three Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“If he hadn’t done that and hadn’t had the mouth, I would’ve voted for him,” she said. Calling abortion her biggest issue, Fitzpatrick added she was “very upset when Roe vs. Wade was overturned.”

Now, Fitzpatrick is instead taking a look at Nikki Haley, who she thought had a “good stance” on abortion.

That’s an increasingly common sentiment coming from early-state voters and donors looking for a candidate in a shrinking field, who believe Haley — the only woman in the Republican race — is the one who can best reach across the divide on abortion.

Haley’s abortion message focuses on trying to find consensus nationally and emphasizes not “demonizing” women or rushing to embrace a federal abortion ban. Haley’s stance has gained attention since the Republican primary debates began in August, in which she has laid out that stance on a national stage.

“As much as I’m pro-life, I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, and I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life,” she said at the most recent debate, hosted by NBC News.

While conventional wisdom would have it that that could turn off the much-needed evangelical voters in Iowa, her poll numbers have consistently inched up. And donors — including those who are considering jumping ship from other candidates — have pointed to her answer about abortion as they look for a candidate to get behind in a narrowing field.

“She’s got the best Republican message on abortion of anyone on the debate stage,” said Bill Strong, a Haley donor and member of her campaign’s executive committee. “Given what she’s gone through, where she’s had two difficult pregnancies and Michael, her husband, was an orphan — they’ve been married for two decades — I think the message coming from a woman who has been through these difficult decisions and issues is much more compelling than anybody else on the debate stage.”

Like the issue of abortion itself, the dynamics of how the issue plays out in the GOP presidential primary campaign are complicated. Some supporters see as a distinct contrast between Trump and Haley — should she go up against him one on one. But other Republicans are less sure, saying Trump’s position seemed murky.

Haley: ‘Why try and divide people further?’

As governor of South Carolina in 2016, Haley signed a law banning most abortions beginning at 20 weeks of pregnancy.

As a presidential candidate, she has evaded endorsing a federal ban on abortion, saying it was “unrealistic” to make such a promise, because for such a bill to get to the president’s desk, it would need to pass the currently insurmountable hurdle of getting 60 votes in the Senate. Instead, she has emphasized bringing people together.

“Why try and divide people further? Why not talk about the fact that we should be trying to save as many babies as possible and support as many mothers as possible?” Haley said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Haley’s competitors have criticized her for sounding too soft on abortion because she has said she would support consensus.

But even while her rhetoric may take a different tone from that of some in the field, she has still made it clear she would like to see abortion outlawed.

At the most recent debate this month, Haley said she would sign “anything” banning abortion that could pass Congress — whether it were at six weeks or 15 weeks.

And at the conservative Family Leader forum in Iowa on Friday, Haley revealed she would sign a six-week abortion ban if she were still governor of South Carolina — leading several Republicans to tell NBC News that the position would boost her with GOP voters.

Maryls Popma, the former president of Iowa Right to Life, endorsed Haley last week. Reached after she heard of Haley’s sentiment about signing the six-week abortion ban, she was pleased.

“That would make my support stronger. I am very pro-life,” Popma said. “I like the fact that Nikki Haley isn’t angry about the issue and that she doesn’t demonize individuals who may have made that decision in her past.”  

Pat Brady, a former chair of the Illinois Republican Party and a board member of Personal PAC, an abortion-rights group, said his support for Haley is unchanged even after she said she would sign a six-week abortion ban.

“Whether you agree or disagree on the weeks, the tone of her message that we all shouldn’t demonize women and shouldn’t demonize the issue is very attractive,” Brady said. “A smart, accomplished woman delivering a message of tolerance on both sides of the issue is so much more appealing to women than what can come out of Trump’s mangled syntax.”

“If she’s our nominee, we’re going to bring back a lot of women who we lost with Trump,” Brady argued.

Trump: ‘Both sides are going to come together’

Trump played a critical role in overturning Roe v. Wade, which has alienated some voters and strengthened his support with others. But recent statements criticizing a six-week abortion ban in Florida — where he now lives — have some questioning where he stands.

Yet despite any growing support for Haley over her abortion stance, Trump remains dominant in the polls. In a recent NBC News poll of the GOP primary campaign, he was leading the field with 58% support nationally. The survey, which was conducted Nov. 10-14 and queried 317 registered Republican voters nationally, showed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 18% and Haley at 13%.

Trump once took credit for his role in reducing access to abortion, having boasted in May: “I was able to kill Roe v. Wade.” But in a September interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he toned down his talk.

“We’re going to agree to a number of weeks or months or however you want to define it,” he said. “And both sides are going to come together, and both sides — both sides, and this is a big statement — both sides will come together. And for the first time in 52 years, you’ll have an issue that we can put behind us.”

That could be a tough message in a general election coming from the man whose Supreme Court justices dealt the blow to Roe v. Wade. And he then also had to do some cleanup with his case.

After he got some pushback for that remark, Trump wrote on his Truth Social account that “in order to win in 2024, Republicans must learn how to talk about Abortion.”

Former president and 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump leaves after speaking at a campaign rally in Claremont, N.H. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP - Getty Images)Former president and 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump leaves after speaking at a campaign rally in Claremont, N.H. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP - Getty Images)

Former president and 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump leaves after speaking at a campaign rally in Claremont, N.H. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP – Getty Images)

Trump also called DeSantis’ signing of a six-week abortion ban in Florida “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”

Brady accused Trump of flip-flopping on the issue according to the political winds.

“Trump will morph himself into whatever he needs to do to get himself elected,” Brady said. “If Trump gets in trouble on this issue in Iowa, then in New Hampshire he’ll deny appointing Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.”

The Trump campaign did not respond for a request for comment about this article.

Bob Vander Plaats, the CEO of the Family Leader, said Haley’s answer about supporting a six-week abortion ban — in response to a question he asked her Friday — made her position more palatable to Iowa Christians who may previously have interpreted her answers as soft on abortion. But Vander Plaats charged that Trump was considered “pro-choice” among some Iowans because of his remarks about the six-week abortion ban.

“I believe Ambassador Haley is more clear on her position with the sanctity of human life than the former president,” Vander Plaats said. “The former president talks about overturning Roe v. Wade, but then when he talks about he’s going to ‘negotiate a great deal for everybody’ — that’s not what we’re looking for.”

In September, MAGA Inc., the PAC supporting Trump, released a polling memo that said Vander Plaats’ endorsement would have “no significant impact on the Presidential ballot.” While Vander Plaats is widely speculated to be backing DeSantis, he said in an interview that he had not yet made a decision but expected to in the near future.

While Haley has spoken of bringing consensus, President Joe Biden’s campaign heaped criticism on her stance, saying she was no different from the rest of the GOP field.

“Nikki Haley is no moderate — she’s an anti-abortion MAGA extremist who wants to rip away women’s freedoms just like she did when she was South Carolina governor,” Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said in a statement. “Now Haley is promising to bring that same fear, anxiety, and dread she forced on South Carolina women to every woman in the country.”

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