WASHINGTON: When Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said recently that he was "proud" to have a hand in overturning the abortion protections enshrined in Roe v. Wade, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake took it as a political gift, thinking to herself, "Oh my God, we just won the election."
It may not be that simple, but as the 2024 race heats up, President Joe Biden's campaign is betting big on abortion rights as a major driver for Democrats in the election. Republicans are still trying to figure out how to talk about the issue, if at all, and avoid a political backlash.
"A vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is a vote to restore Roe, and a vote for Donald Trump is a vote to ban abortion across the country," said Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden's campaign manager.
"These are the stakes in 2024."
Since Roe was overturned in 2022, voters have pushed back by approving a number of statewide ballot initiatives to preserve or expand the right to abortion. Support for abortion rights drove women to the polls during the 2022 midterm elections, delivering Democrats unexpected success.
For many people, the issue took on higher meaning, part of an overarching concern about the future of democracy, according to AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of more than 94,000 voters in the midterm elections.
Democrats have since worked to broaden how they talk to voters about the Supreme Court's decision, delivered by a conservative majority that included three justices nominated by Trump, and what it means for people's access to health care and their personal freedoms.
The Biden campaign is launching a nationwide political push this coming week centered on Monday's 51st anniversary of the 1973 decision that codified abortion rights. Vice President Kamala Harris, the administration's chief messenger on this, will hold the first event Monday in Wisconsin.
On Tuesday, Biden, Harris, first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff head to Virginia for a campaign stop focused on the issue. More events featuring top Democrats in battleground states are also in the works.
The campaign on Sunday released a advertising campaign scheduled to run all week, including during "The Bachelor" season premiere and the NFL conference championships. The spot features Dr. Austin Dennard, an OB-GYN in Texas who had to leave her state to get an abortion when she learned that her baby had a fatal condition called anencephaly.
"In Texas, you are forced to carry that pregnancy, and that is because of Donald Trump overturning Roe v. Wade," she said.
Focusing on abortion will not be a silver bullet for Democrats.
The economy, foreign policy, immigration and inflation are major issues, too, as is concern about Biden's age as he tries to overcome low poll numbers. Many voters are simply turned off by the prospect of a likely 2024 Trump-Biden rematch.
Still, Democrats believe abortion will be a key motivator for base voters and help expand their coalition. Biden aides and allies point to recent elections that have overwhelmingly shown that, when voters can choose, they have chosen to safeguard abortion rights.
The issue isn't vanishing from the headlines anytime soon, either.
The Supreme Court will decide whether to restrict access to medication prescribed for abortion and to treat other reproductive issues. And there is an ongoing stream of stories about the impact of abortion bans, such as the mother who had to sue, then flee, her home state to end her doomed pregnancy.
Democrats spent decades trying to calibrate their message, always defending the right to choose while also making overtures to voters who are conflicted about the issue. President Bill Clinton's mantra was that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare."
But the loss of federal abortion protections has been a catalyst for a broader and bolder message about abortion and reproductive rights after the historic setback from the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization that overturned Roe.
"We know that if we talk about this issue as a fundamental freedom, we are able to resonate across demographics — older voters, younger voters, people of color, folks in rural areas," said Mini Timmaraju, head of Reproductive Freedom for All, formerly NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Biden aides said the strategy is to let the president be who he is — an 81-year-old Catholic man who doesn't use the word abortion much, preferring to talk instead about the issue in the context of personal freedom.
The White House often frames the fight as part of a larger battle that involves book bans, voting rights and other social issues. For more aggressive talk about abortion and how the ripple effects of the decision are affecting maternal health, there's Harris.
Timmaraju said those "different messages resonate with different parts of the electorate."
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Democrat and vocal advocate for abortion rights, said it would be good if Biden spoke more forcefully on the topic. "I think people want to know that this is a president that is fighting," Whitmer told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
"To use maybe more ... blunt language, maybe that would be helpful."
Since the high court overturned Roe, roughly 25 million women now live in states with some type of ban in effect. The impacts are increasingly felt by women who never intended to end their pregnancies, yet have had emergency medical care denied or delayed because of the new restrictions.
According to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, among Democrats, nearly nine in 10 say abortion should generally be legal. Four in 10 say it should be legal in all cases, and nearly half say it should be legal in most cases.
As for Republicans, the topic was largely absent in the lead-up to this year's Iowa caucuses, a remarkable change in a state that has long backed religious conservatives vowing to restrict the procedure.
Part of the change is because Republicans achieved a generational goal with the overturning of Roe. But it also underscores a fear among Republican candidates and voters alike that vocalizing their desire to further restrict abortion rights might be politically dangerous.
"I am calling the time period we are in now 'the new fight for life,'" said Benjamin Watson, a former NFL player who is now an anti-abortion advocate. "Roe is done, but we still live in a culture that knows not how to care for life. Roe is done, but the factors that drive women to seek abortions are ever apparent and ever increasing."
Overall, opinions on abortion remain complex, with most people believing it should be allowed in some circumstances and not in others. About two-thirds of US adults say abortion should generally be legal, but only about one-quarter say it should always be legal and only about 1 in 10 say it should always be illegal.
Trump has waffled on the topic. During a recent Fox News town hall, he expressed support for limited exceptions and criticized state laws that ban abortion after six weeks. But he also has promoted his own role.
"For 54 years they were trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated, and I did it and I'm proud to have done it," he said.
The Biden administration is nearing the limits of what it can do to preserve access to abortion absent congressional legislation. In the immediate aftermath June 24, 2022 Supreme Court decision, the administration quickly tried to flex its regulatory muscle to fight back against Republican efforts to severely restrict abortion. Many efforts have been challenged in court.
Biden had invited states with robust abortion access to apply for Medicaid waivers that would help pay for women to travel for the care. But so far, only California has applied to unlock federal money for the effort.
The top US health official, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, is on a three-day East Coast tour to talk with doctors and medical students about access to abortion and birth control.
"This is the beginning of an effort to reach out to all Americans," Becerra said, and "say to the American people how important it is that we stand up at a crucial time."