Republican candidate Joni Ernst defended her opposition to abortion rights during Thursday's final debate between her and Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley in their neck-and-neck race for a U.S. Senate seat, but she said for the first time that she might support a legal exception to save the life of the mother.
The issue has come to define the final weeks of their campaigns to succeed retiring Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin. Polls show more women support Braley, a congressman from northeast Iowa, and more men back Ernst, a state senator from southwest Iowa.
Braley and allied groups are pressing the abortion issue in the days to come on the airwaves and during political stops.
During a free-flowing, conversational debate, Ernst repeatedly stated her belief that life begins at conception, which is consistent with her support for a U.S. Constitutional amendment bestowing the rights of persons on fetuses. Braley and others critical of such an amendment say it would outlaw abortions, most forms of contraception and in vitro fertilization.
"There would be certain exceptions," Ernst said, when pressed by the moderator about whether she could see any circumstances under which she would support abortion. "Going back to perhaps the life of the mother, I think that would be important."
But Ernst, who also has stated her support for access to birth control, accused Braley of trying to politicize a delicate issue.
Braley, a courtroom lawyer before becoming a U.S. representative in 2007, said he opposed late-term abortions beyond those to save the life and health of the mother. But he declined to say when such a procedure would be too late, instead defining it as "a term that has a specific legal meaning."
Braley also argued that Ernst's support for contraception was inconsistent with her support for the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that said employers could choose on grounds of religious belief not to comply with part of the health care law that requires contraception coverage.
"You can't say you support that right and then say it's OK for employers to interfere with it," Braley said.
But as has happened in their other debates, Braley argued his point and Ernst stood firm.
"This is a ploy to scare women," she said. "I will protect their right to birth control."
Iowa's Senate race is the closest in the nation where there is no incumbent running. Republicans need to net six seats to claim the majority. Two polls this month showed Braley erasing Ernst's September lead among independent voters, while another showed Ernst with a wide lead among independents.
Braley generally has focused his critique of Ernst on middle-class economic issues, such as her opposition to increasing the federal minimum wage. But Thursday's debate showed an intensified attack on her stance on abortion.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a television ad Thursday criticizing Ernst's opposition to such rights, including in cases of rape and incest, and NARAL Pro-Choice America began airing an ad condemning an anti-abortion group's support for Ernst.
Ernst has railed on Braley for voting for the federal health care law in 2010, the signature domestic achievement of President Barack Obama, who suffers low approval in the state despite carrying it twice.
Ernst also linked Braley with the Obama administration in accusing the White House of not anticipating or acting quickly enough to stop the spread of the Ebola virus.
"Unfortunately our administration, including Congressman Braley, has been very reactive and not proactive," Ernst said Thursday night.
On Thursday, Braley attended an emergency meeting of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, which was called as the result of the three cases in the U.S.