Republican rivals spent more time talking about abortion than any other single issue during the first debate, exposing divisions around a federal ban.
Even as Republicans’ efforts to restrict abortion rights appear to have hurt candidates in key races over the last year, the party’s chairwoman said on Thursday morning that she welcomed the protracted — and at times, contentious — discussion of the topic in the first Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night.
“I was very pleased to see them talk about abortion,” Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, said on “Fox & Friends.”
According to an analysis by The New York Times, abortion was the most-discussed topic among the eight candidates, outlasting discussion of former President Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner, by more than a minute.
Ms. McDaniel noted that Democrats had successfully campaigned on the issue of abortion rights in last year’s midterm elections and were likely to do so again in 2024. Democrats have sought to harness a backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion. The issue appears to have helped motivate voter turnout for Democrats and has become politically risky for Republicans. Many have sought to play down the subject.
“If our candidates aren’t able to find a response and put out a response, we’re not going to win,” Ms. McDaniel said.
But if Ms. McDaniel welcomed the discussion Wednesday night, so, too, did some Democrats and abortion rights activists, who were eager to remind voters that most Republicans — including those on the debate stage — are far to the right of public opinion.
“Someone tell her they’re also not going to win if they do talk about abortion,” a leading abortion rights group, Naral Pro-Choice America, responded on X, formerly known as Twitter.
This month, Ohio voters rebuffed a Republican-backed ballot measure that would have made it more difficult to amend the state’s constitution, an effort by Republicans to make it harder for voters to preserve abortion rights through an amendment. Though abortion was not technically on the ballot, discussion of the issue dominated the conversation.
While a 2024 candidate’s fierce opposition to abortion may help draw voters in a Republican primary, that stance could hurt them with moderate or independent voters in a general election.
A New York Times/Siena College poll from July found significant opposition to abortion among likely Republican voters, with 56 percent saying abortion should be mostly or always illegal, and 58 percent saying they backed a 15-week federal abortion ban.
But the federal ban had significantly less support among a broader pool of voters, with 53 percent saying they would oppose it, and 61 percent saying abortion should be mostly or always legal.
The exchange at Wednesday night’s debate laid bare this tension, exposing divisions within the Republican Party and those seeking to be its standard-bearer. While all eight candidates have voiced support for the Supreme Court’s decision, they disagree on whether to enact a federal abortion ban or leave those measures to the states.
Former Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina both backed a 15-week national ban, a policy that Mr. Pence has challenged everyone in the field to embrace. Mr. Pence sparred over the issue with Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, who argued that a federal abortion ban was politically impractical and urged Republicans “to stop demonizing this issue.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — who signed a six-week abortion ban into law in his state — hedged, saying he would support “the side of life” while also acknowledging that “Wisconsin is going to do it different than Texas.”
But in her appearance on Fox News, Ms. McDaniel sought to highlight the party’s unity, saying that all eight candidates had successfully painted their political opponents as extreme on the issue. Mr. Scott, for example, claimed falsely that New York, California and Illinois allowed abortions without limits up until birth.
Mr. Trump, who opted to skip the debate, has been less clear about his views on an abortion ban. His appointments to the Supreme Court cleared the way for its decision on abortion. But Mr. Trump has not yet backed a federal ban, and his campaign has suggested that he wants to leave abortion policy up to individual states. During his presidency, he at one point supported a ban after 20 weeks’ gestation.