Former President Donald Trump's GOP rivals are seizing on his recent comments on abortion as a political vulnerability, after he criticized six-week state "heartbeat" bill bans in Florida and other states and talked about working with "both sides" to find a compromise on abortion limits.
"We're going to agree to a number of weeks or months or however you want to define it," he said in an interview last Sunday with NBC News.
He criticized the six-week abortion ban signed into law in Florida by Gov. Ron DeSantis, calling it a "terrible thing and a terrible mistake," and he added that if elected, he wouldn't sign a 15-week federal abortion ban into law.
On the campaign trail, Trump has blamed the GOP's underperformance in the 2022 midterm elections on Republican candidates who "didn't understand the issue."
"In order to win in 2024, Republicans must learn how to properly talk about abortion," Trump said Wednesday at a rally in Dubuque.
It remains to be seen whether this will hurt him with voters in early-voting states where Trump holds a huge lead in the polls.
DeSantis, who has been eager to distinguish himself from Trump, jumped on the comments.
He told an Iowa radio show Monday that "pro-lifers should know [Trump] is preparing to sell you out." And in an ABC News Live interview Wednesday, DeSantis questioned whether Trump was even "pro-life."
"If you're pro-life, you would want to say that there should be protections there," DeSantis said. "And if he's saying that, that's a terrible thing. I know most pro-life voters would think that he's wrong."
Two Republican governors who also signed six-week abortion bans, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, also pushed back on Trump's comments.
"It is never a 'terrible thing' to protect innocent life," Reynolds said.
Another rival, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, criticized Trump at campaign stops in Iowa and New Hampshire this week for suggesting he'd negotiate with Democrats to "walk back away from what I believe where we need to be, which is a 15-week limit on the federal level."
"I've said, 'Not on my watch,'" Scott told Iowans at a town hall in Mason City, Iowa, Monday. "I'm not going to pretend like I support the issue. I'm going to stand in the fire until I get it done."
In an interview with CBS News chief election and campaign correspondent Robert Costa Monday, former Vice President Mike Pence also mentioned Trump's comments.
"Donald Trump even this last weekend said that a heartbeat bill passed in Florida was a terrible mistake and even blamed losses in the 22 midterm elections on the fact that we overturned Roe versus Wade," Pence said. "I think the time has come for him to step forward and start talking not about the past, but about the future."
Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist based in Texas, who is not aligned with any presidential campaign, said the issue is a "risk" for Trump and creates an opportunity for another candidate to win over evangelical voters in Iowa.
"To that bloc, there is no issue more important than abortion. That issue should have been a strength for Trump," Mackowiak said. "He has a strong record on that issue and he should be getting something for it. And all he's done is now give someone else a chance to attract that vote in Iowa and South Carolina."
But he added that the criticism of Trump will matter if the field of candidates remains large and he maintains polling lead in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Unless the field coalesces, even if six people have a stronger position on abortion than he does, no one's gonna benefit," he said.
So far, Trump's comments seem not to have not to have had a noticeable effect on his supporters.
Tonya Miller, of Dubuque, said Trump "knows what to do," on abortion, adding, "We may not agree on everything."
"I am pro-life, and I am a big fan of saving babies, and so I support Trump 100%," Pam Thorne of Dubuque said. Asked if Trump's comments were a problem for her, Thorne said "no, not at all."
Some New Hampshire voters, though, say they'd prefer it if abortion stay in the state's hands.
"If the majority of people in state X, Y, Z want to ban abortion, then that's the way democracy works," said New Hampshire voter Julia Schapells.
At a Nikki Haley town hall event in Hampton, New Hampshire, two-time Trump voter Karen Mclaueghlin said abortion used to be a "deal breaker" for her, but now that has changed.
"It's my body, my choice. However, I also have a lot of faith and…I have changed that view in recent years. I do still support abortion in some cases," Mclaueghlin told CBS News, but she also said that she favors a national law.
Haley has said she'd sign a federal ban on abortion, but has noted that that the probability of getting a ban through the closely divided Senate is low.
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