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Trump’s latest abortion stance presents challenge for potential running mates

<i>Kent Nishimura/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Former President Donald Trump is seen at an event in National Harbor
Kent Nishimura/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Former President Donald Trump is seen at an event in National Harbor

By Steve Contorno, CNN

(CNN) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said Donald Trump was “exactly right” to want states in charge of abortion access in America. Unaddressed in her social media post Monday, though, was the former president’s support for exceptions for rape and incest in anti-abortion laws – the kind left out of the ban she has defended in her own state.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Sen. Tim Scott balked at a reporter asking about Trump declining to endorse a federal abortion ban – a policy that the South Carolina Republican called a “moral obligation” for his party while he campaigned last year to be its presidential nominee.

For Noem, Scott and others in consideration to become Trump’s running mate, the former president’s latest contortions around abortion present a new challenge as they compete for his attention. Many of those in the mix have spent their political careers as unyielding opponents of the procedure and unflinching allies of the anti-abortion movement.

Now, those records stand at odds with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Trump angered several anti-abortion leaders this week by refusing to back a federal abortion ban while embracing exceptions that Republicans throughout the country have for years opposed as morally questionable.

His support for the post-Roe v. Wade status quo – where states like Texas are free to outlaw almost all abortions and others like California can legalize the procedure in all instances before viability – is a position Trump arrived at out of political expediency as Democrats ready millions of advertising dollars to remind voters who is responsible for the loss of federal abortion protections. But for a party that has long defined life as beginning at conception, Trump’s latest evolution on abortion will test those aspiring to run with him.

The reality is a stark reversal from the last time Trump landed on Mike Pence for his running mate eight years ago in hopes the Indiana governor’s staunch opposition to abortion could assuage fears from the Christian right about the thrice-married Manhattan socialite who once declared himself “very pro-choice.” Now, Trump sees abortion as a potentially damaging issue for Republicans to navigate as he seeks a return to the White House.

Those familiar with the vice presidential search say Trump is closely studying how his potential picks have approached the divisive issue in the past, believing it’s one of the few issues Democrats could successfully exploit. In private conversations with advisers and allies, Trump regularly asks where specific individuals stand on the issue and is particularly keen on learning their position on exceptions for victims of rape and incest and when the health of the mother is in danger.

Trump, who has at times expressed disbelief at Republicans who oppose exceptions, has indicated he would look unfavorably on a candidate who doesn’t support them, at times characterizing it as a nonstarter.

It’s unclear how Trump will define that criterion. While Noem was quicker than most Republicans to voice support for Trump on Monday, she has also called herself “an absolutist” on abortion and said her state’s ban on the procedure was a model for the country. Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, another Republican often discussed alongside Noem and others, has yet to weigh in on Trump’s remarks but his campaign website makes clear he would “fight to protect the life of every unborn child without exception.”

Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, also in consideration, once supported the Texas ban on abortion that does not allow exceptions, except in limited cases when a woman’s life is provably at risk. But Vance last year echoed Trump’s calls for Republicans to approach abortion more pragmatically to win elections after voters in his state amended their constitution to protect access to the procedure.

“We have to accept that people do not want blanket abortion bans,” Vance told CNN in December. “They just don’t. I say this as a person who wants to protect as many unborn babies as possible. We have to provide exceptions for the life of the mother, for rape and so forth. That is just a basic necessity.”

Similarly, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has in the past said he supports a ban on abortion, including when a pregnancy is the result of a rape. But Rubio, whom Trump regularly discusses among allies as a potential running mate, has also said he would support legislation that includes some exceptions because “I recognize that’s not a majority position.”

Rubio said in a statement Tuesday that “pro-life” Republicans have “an obligation to support every law that has a realistic chance of passing.”

“What (Trump) said yesterday was the truth that our most realistic chance of limiting the damage that abortion does is at the state level,” the senator said. “That’s just a fact.”

Rubio was an early co-sponsor of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s bill to ban abortion nationwide 15 weeks into a pregnancy. Trump on Monday lashed out at Graham over the legislation that he filed after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and that has gone nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“We had a Great Victory,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform. “It’s back in the States where it belongs, and where everyone wanted it. The States will be making the decision.”

The potential ramifications of Trump’s approach grew more apparent Tuesday, when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the state must adhere to a 160-year-old law barring all abortions, “except those necessary to save a woman’s life.” The fallout from that decision immediately reverberated through the state’s US Senate race, in which Republican candidate Kari Lake, once a backer of the law, said in a statement that she opposed the ruling.

Trump has floated Lake’s name in private, including at a New York fundraiser, where he quizzed donors about his vice presidential shortlist. Her entrance into the Arizona Senate race, however, makes her an unlikely choice.

Trump’s statement on abortion Monday threatened to drive a wedge between Republicans and the groups they have long relied on for support and to affirm their conservative bona fides for voters. Among the anti-abortion leaders speaking out against Trump was Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, who said she was “deeply disappointed” in the former president’s position.

At an SBA Pro-Life America event in June marking the first anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to end a constitutional right to an abortion, Rep. Elise Stefanik told the room that the next front in the battle over abortion would be “a primary question of public policy for state, local, and yes, federal policymakers.”

But in a statement to CNN on Tuesday, the New York Republican sided with Trump, calling him “the most successful pro-life President in history.”

Though she has co-sponsored a federal abortion ban, Stefanik said the former president “is right that this issue will ultimately be decided by voters across America.”

CNN’s Kristen Holmes, Manu Raju, Kit Maher and Alison Main contributed to this report.

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