Heading into the closing stages of Thursday night’s vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky., moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News steered the conversation away from foreign policy and the economy and toward abortion, a development that pleased both President Obama’s re-election campaign and some liberal media commentators.
Raddatz, who has been under fire in recent days for her decades-old association with President Barack Obama, instructed Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to discuss their Catholic faith as it regards the emotional and intensely personal issue. (RELATED EDITORIAL: ABC fails ethics test)
“We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this,” Raddatz said. “And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please — this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country — please talk personally about this, if you could.”
Both Biden and Ryan answered the question, with Biden temporarily discontinuing the erratic gesturing for which he would later be criticized. (RELATED: Krauthammer on Biden’s ‘disrespectful,’ ‘hugely condescending’ demeanor)
Raddatz seemed determined to keep the conversation focused, steering the conversation back to abortion when Ryan raised the issue of Catholics fighting the Obama administration over Obamacare’s contraception mandate.
“I want to go back to the abortion question here,” Raddatz insisted. “If the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that abortion should remain legal be worried?”
This would be the left-leaning MSNBC’s favorite debate moment. After last week’s first presidential debate that left the pro-Obama cable news channel with little to celebrate, “Hardball” host and MSNBC post-debate panelist Chris Matthews explained why the abortion moment was one of the evening’s highlights. (RELATED VIDEO: Post-debate, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews lapses into panic mode)
“Abortion — I thought that Ryan did a heartfelt thing but what he said was I’m for outlawing abortion in a country of this diversity,” Matthews said. “He said that. A lot of people who are not of the Roman Catholic faith, the conservative Roman Catholic faith, [who] have a particular right-wing view about all kind of social issues, will say, ‘Wait a minute here, are you telling me you’re going to take away my right to make this decision myself? Take it away from my daughter because you have a point of view?’”
“This is America,” Matthews continued. “This isn’t old Spain. You don’t tell people what you can’t do because of your church views. You don’t do that. I thought Joe handled it exactly the way, well, a lot of people would have handled it. I think that’s going to hit home with people tonight, that abortion answer. And I tell you, the big three — taxes, Medicare and abortion — won for Biden tonight. I weight them heavily more than I do Syria and some of these other issues, and Benghazi. I think that’s why he won tonight.”
Matthews and his MSNBC colleagues apparently thought so much of Ryan and Biden’s seven-minute exchange on abortion that they discussed it at least five more times during 90 minutes of coverage wrapping up a 90-minute debate.
Figuring most prominently in that coverage was an interview Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s “The Last Word,” conducted with Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, who happened to be working on behalf of the Obama campaign in the post-debate spin room.
The early signs
In a conference call Wednesday morning, Richards and Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter tipped their hand, indicating that abortion would figure prominently in the last four weeks of he election season.
“Romney is trying to hide what he believes, but there is no hiding as president,” Cutter said. “His severely conservative positions that got him through the primaries are still there, and they have been there for six years, and now he is trying to cover them up because he knows they hurt women, seniors, and the middle class — and they hurt his chances for winning the presidency — so even the ‘real Romney’ can’t cover that up.” (RELATED: Obama camp claims Romney hiding true abortion views)
Cutter’s appeared inspired by Romney’s comment during a Des Moines Register editorial board meeting Tuesday that “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” He added in the same interview, however, that he would use an executive order to reinstate the so-called Mexico City policy,which bans private groups from using federal funds for abortions. The Obama administration overturned that policy in 2009,
Abortion is one plank of a “war on women” strategy the president’s allies believe might help the Obama-Biden ticket. Last month the pro-abortion NARAL Pro-Choice America rolled out an election strategy to reporters at its Washington, D.C. headquarters, laying out a model designed to help Obama win women’s votes. (RELATED: Pro-choice group unveils detailed plan to sway ‘Obama defectors’ back to Obama)
Reinvigorating that strategy could be important following a presidential debate performance by Romney last week that created a surge big enough to all but erase the president’s double-digit lead among women voters, according to Fox News.
Media have leveraged “war on women” issues before
Thursday’s debate did not mark this year’s only high-stakes political debate appearance of a contentious social issue impacting women. As the moderator of a January 2012 Republican primary debate, Raddatz’s ABC colleague George Stephanopoulos took aim at then-Republican nominee hopeful Mitt Romney on restricting women’s access to contraception (RELATED: Stephanopoulos struggles with fairness during NH debate):
STEPHANOPOULOS: Governor Romney, do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception? Or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?
ROMNEY: George, this is an unusual topic that you’re raising. States have a right to ban contraception? I can’t imagine a state banning contraception. I can’t imagine the circumstances where a state would want to do so, and if I were a governor of a state or…
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, the Supreme Court has ruled —
ROMNEY: … or a — or a legislature of a state — I would totally and completely oppose any effort to ban contraception. So you’re asking — given the fact that there’s no state that wants to do so, and I don’t know of any candidate that wants to do so, you’re asking could it constitutionally be done?
That out-of-the-blue line of questioning was met with boos by the audience of GOP partisans. But Stephanopoulos, a former Clinton White House Senior Advisor, had set the stage for what conservative talker Rush Limbaugh and former Clinton adviser and Fox News political analyst Dick Morris later said was intentionally set in motion to make so-called “war on women” issues an unavoidable part of this year’s presidential contest.
The election is now just 25 days away. The Obama administration is absorbing criticism for potentially misreporting jobs data and mishandling a terrorist raid that killed America’s ambassador to Libya. And Obama is facing an opponent in Romney with momentum in his corner. Raddatz’s decision to call attention to abortion may have been just what the doctor ordered for the president’s campaign.