Nikki Haley promised to address abortion ‘directly and openly.’ Then she didn’t.


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One area in which Haley was clear, however, was her expectation that nothing far-reaching would hit her desk, should she end up in the White House. “We have to face this reality. The pro-life laws that have passed in strongly Republican states will not be approved at the federal level,” Haley said. “That’s just a fact.”

Haley’s struggle to articulate a clear position on abortion in an address that was billed as a chance to do just that highlights how fraught the issue is for Republicans on the national campaign trail. GOP candidates have lost a number of races to Democrats who championed abortion rights in the post-Dobbs era, and, over the past few weeks, presidential aspirants have walked on eggshells when discussing the topic.

Haley is seeking to position herself as a candidate uniquely capable of tackling the debate. On Tuesday, she spoke from her own perspective as a woman and mother — identities unmatched among a slate of male Republican opponents. Haley said her husband’s adoption out of foster care as a young child and her own struggle with infertility made her opposed to abortion — “not because the Republican Party told me to be.” She discussed her friend’s rape and subsequent fear of becoming pregnant.

“I don’t judge someone who is pro-choice any more than I want them to judge me for being pro-life,” said Haley, who as governor of South Carolina, signed a law restricting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

While Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, attended the address and called Haley “a remarkable leader,” others in the movement were left wanting. After Haley finished, prominent anti-abortion activist Lila Rose called the speech “disappointing” and “not what pro-life voters are looking for.”

Haley’s address Tuesday came hours before Vice President Kamala Harris was scheduled to join abortion rights groups in D.C. for a “rally for reproductive freedom,” an event celebrating a Supreme Court decision to temporarily block a lower court’s restriction of access to abortion pill mifepristone.

In an interview Monday, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, stressed the need for candidates to show “boldness in communicating” their positions on abortion laws. Dannenfelser has maintained that her organization will oppose Republican presidential candidates who don’t embrace, at minimum, a national 15-week limit on abortions. A week prior, the group had taken the extraordinary step of criticizing former president Donald Trump for saying that he believed abortion policy should be left to the states, essentially swearing off support for any federal legislation.

That had left an opening for Haley. But as Dannenfelser looked on during Haley’s speech Tuesday, the former governor and United Nations ambassador didn’t articulate the extent to which she believes the federal government should go in restricting abortion access. In fact, Haley downplayed the likelihood of any highly restrictive national law being passed, noting that the Senate lacks the votes. Haley instead noted policies that she believes most Americans can agree on, including opposing “abortion up to the point of birth” or jailing women who receive abortions.

Afterward, a spokesperson for Haley clarified that she has not called for a 15-week national restriction, even as SBA released a statement applauding Haley’s pledge to do so. An SBA spokesperson told POLITICO that Haley “has assured us that she will commit to 15 weeks.”

Later, a person familiar with the conversation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Haley privately told SBA officials “exactly what she said in her speech today,” and did not commit to a 15-week law, but rather only to “find a consensus to ban late-term abortion.”

“I think that potential Republican voters are getting to know each of the candidates, and they deserve to know exactly where they stand on this issue, which is at its peak of importance given the overturning of Roe v. Wade,” Dannenfelser said in the interview.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who hasn’t yet officially declared his candidacy but has launched an exploratory committee, spent days earlier this month publicly working through his answer to the abortion question, initially declining to provide any specifics before agreeing he would sign a national law limiting the procedure to 20 weeks, a measure he has supported in the Senate. Later, Scott said he would sign “the most conservative pro-life legislation” Congress would pass.

Former Vice President Mike Pence has been perhaps the clearest on his intentions to restrict the procedure if elected president, saying last month he would support a six-week federal limit. More recently, Pence has floated a 15-week restriction as something that should be “part and parcel of debate.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, another Republican seeking the nomination, in an interview Monday said he has been “unapologetically pro-life” since high school, as well as an “unapologetic defender of the Constitution.” And he said he believes abortion is a “form of murder,” but shouldn’t be regulated federally.

“Federal law does not govern murder. State laws do,” Ramaswamy said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an as-of-yet-undeclared presidential hopeful, drew national headlines this month for signing into law an abortion prohibition after six weeks, though he has shied away from commenting on what kind of national abortion law he would support as president. DeSantis failed to tout his state’s new wide-reaching abortion restriction when he spoke the following day at Liberty University, the nation’s leading evangelical Christian college.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, another candidate, has said he would support a national ban on the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster whose clients include Trump, suggested there’s wisdom to Trump walking a fine line between touting his past accomplishments for anti-abortion activists, while leaving the door open to appeal to abortion-rights supporters going forward.

“I think President Trump, you know, he could take credit with the pro-life movement because it was his judges that have changed the laws, and they’ve been making progress,” McLaughlin said. “But I also think … pro-choice voters do not feel threatened with Donald Trump’s position on abortion. So I think he’s got the best of both worlds there.”

Adam Wren contributed to this story.

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