The Elephant in the Room

Mike Huckabee may have taken a pass on a second presidential run, but the 2008 Iowa winner turned Fox News televangelist still wants to have his say in this year's race. He's returning to Iowa—the state that defined him as more than just the Southern governor who lost all the weight—to co-host a forum with Citizens United next month. According to Politico, they have invited the eight major 2012 candidates, with abortion slotted as the primary topic of the event.

Debates around choice have been strangely absent thus far in this year's presidential race. "Most of the candidates have addressed [abortion] in generic terms, but not real specific terms," says Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition. "So I think a forum of this nature is a good thing, get them tied down a bit more."

It was a major wedge issue in 2008, one that turned Iowa's social conservatives against Mitt Romney and derailed his entire campaign. Take this moment from an Iowa debate in 2007, which devolved into a fight between Romney and then-Senator Sam Brownback:

There has been no similar scuffle this year. When the candidates met on a debate stage for the first time in June, CNN posed a question to Rick Santorum, egging him on to attack Romney's shifted positions. Santorum largely took a pass, focusing on his own stance rather than Romney's. Moderator John King then opened the question to the floor. " Is there anybody here who believes that that's an issue in the campaign, or is it case closed?" he asked. No one took the chance to jab the front-runner, and the debate moved on. Since then, Santorum briefly discussed it at another debate, Tim Pawlenty defended his credentials days before dropping out of the field, and a single question was directed at Ron Paul in September. Otherwise, the candidates' opposition to abortion rights hasn't been a topic at the national level.

Abortion seems to have lost its be-all and end-all spot on the Republican litmus test. In addition to the pass Romney has received this time around, Herman Cain briefly diverged from the party's plank. "What it comes down to," Cain said in an interview last month, "is not the government’s role or anybody else’s role to make that decision. … So what I’m saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make." He walked back his comment the next day, but his stance didn't receive near the level of criticism conservatives have directed at Rick Perry for his take on immigration.

There are a number of explanations for why anti-choice positions haven't dominated the Republican nomination as much as in years past. The lingering effects of the recession have hung over the entire political narrative, pushing economics to the forefront of every debate. And all the candidates share the same basic level of pro-life views, even if those have changed over time such as the case with Romney. "The reason it hasn't gotten much discussion is that there isn't a candidate that's pro-choice like there was with Rudy Giuliani last time," says Chuck Laudner, a prominent Iowa conservative activist who has endorsed Santorum.

It's disappeared nationally, but Romney's flip-flops on choice continue to play a dominant role among the GOP's evangelical base and help explain his decision to avoid competing in Iowa this year. "The one that's totally disappointing—of course he never comes to Iowa—is Mitt Romney, who pre-2007 was pro-choice, and then he talked a lot about it last cycle, but this cycle, he's been pretty silent about it," Scheffler says. "It certainly leads to the impression that it's not a conviction of the heart."

Debate moderators are avoiding raising the idea after it was covered extensively last time around, and the decision to bypass Iowa has allowed the former Massachusets governor to avoid the typical town-hall gathering and questions from the state's disgruntled social conservatives. It will be shocking if Romney decides to attend Huckabee's forum next month.