By Veronica Stracqualursi, Kristen Holmes and Kit Maher, CNN
(CNN) — Former President Donald Trump faced blowback this week from his Republican presidential rivals over his recent comments to NBC News on abortion, in which he called Florida’s six-week abortion ban a “terrible mistake” and said that he’d be willing to work with both parties on the issue.
Former Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday, who is also seeking the GOP presidential nomination, drew on Trump’s comments as part of his argument that his former running mate is moving away from conservative principles.
“Just this weekend again, you saw [Trump] walking away from our commitment to the sanctity of human life. I’m pro-life. People that know me know, I’ll always stand for the unborn. He actually said that a Heartbeat Bill adopted in Florida, and in places like Georgia and Ohio and South Carolina, and Iowa was a quote, terrible mistake,” he said of Trump on Fox Business.
He also told Fox News Radio that Trump’s comments “just suggests to me that he is backing away from that cause.”
Pence, who has challenged the GOP field to commit to a 15-week federal ban and is clear about his opposition to abortion, was far from being the only of Trump’s competitors to call out the former president for his comments. The Republican presidential field has been split on the issue of abortion, which particularly has galvanized voters since the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last year in prior elections.
Trump, for his part, has vacillated on his approach to the polarizing issue. He has said both privately and publicly that he does not believe abortion is a winning political issue, particularly in a general election. During campaign speeches he has often avoided the topic altogether. However, he has repeatedly sought to take credit for the overturning of Roe v. Wade after appointing three conservative justices to the Supreme Court while serving as president.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said Thursday that Trump is “wrong on the issue” in not backing a 15-week federal ban, and suggested that he would sponsor Senate legislation next week banning abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy.
“But he’s not alone. Ron (DeSantis) has the same position. Nikki (Haley) has the same position and Vivek (Ramaswamy) has the same position of letting the states decide on when they stop abortions,” he said on Fox News Radio.
Campaigning in Iowa this week, where the abortion issue is important to the state’s Christian conservative voters, Scott, who has been reluctant to attack other Republicans, called out Trump over his comments and refusing to specify how many weeks of pregnancy he’d support restricting abortion.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has also leaned on the issue lately to draw a distinction between him and Trump. On Monday, DeSantis said on a local Iowa radio station that “all pro-lifers should know that he’s preparing to sell you out.”
In an interview with ABC News this week, DeSantis, who was the target of Trump’s NBC comments, said Trump made a “big mistake” for saying some Republicans pursued “terrible” state-level restrictions on abortion. The Florida governor had signed a bill into law in April that’s not in effect yet but would ban most abortions after six weeks.
Trump “claimed to be pro-life. He spoke at the March for Life and was waxing eloquently about how everybody counts. For him to then attack people like Iowa, South Carolina, Florida, all these other states, I thought was a big mistake,” DeSantis told ABC News.
“When you provide pro-life protections that says when a baby has a heartbeat, that there’s protections, that is not something that pro-lifers think is terrible. They think that that is a noble and just thing to do,” DeSantis said.
Asked if he thought Trump was “pro-life,” DeSantis said, “Well, you tell me.”
“If you have something where you have a baby that has a detectable heartbeat, if you’re pro-life, you would want to say that there should be protections there. And he’s saying that that’s a terrible thing. I know most pro-life voters would, would think that he’s wrong,” the Florida governor said.
He, like Pence, also argued Trump is a “different candidate” than who he was in 2015 and has drifted on positions favorable with Republican voters.
“He’s taking positions that I think are different from what he took in 2015 when he first came onto the scene, and I do think he’s a different candidate today than he was back then,” DeSantis said. “I think the one back then was probably closer to where Republican voters want to be than the latest iteration.”
Trump’s comments have also raised alarm among Iowa Republicans and Christian conservatives in the state – a key voting bloc that has helped propel candidates in the race.
Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has left the door open to a late endorsement in the 2024 primary, also appeared to take issue with the president’s comments.
“It’s never a ‘terrible thing’ to protect innocent life,” the Republican governor wrote on X Tuesday. “I’m proud of the fetal heartbeat bill the Iowa legislature passed and I signed in 2018 and again earlier this year.”
On Wednesday, Trump said during a campaign stop in Iowa that Republicans “must learn how to properly talk about abortion” if they want to win in 2024.
“We’d probably lose the majorities in 2024 without the exceptions,” Trump told a crowd of more than 1,000 at his campaign event in Dubuque, Iowa, referring to exceptions of rape, incest and health of the mother, which he supports.
“You have to follow your heart. You can’t just do it for elections… but at the same time you have to win elections,” he said.
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CNN’s Eva McKend, Eric Bradner and Aaron Pellish contributed to this report.