For more than a generation, abortion has been a litmus test in American politics. Democrats, in the main, support legalized abortion. Republicans, for the most part, are opposed.
So when four of the GOP presidential hopefuls appeared Wednesday night at a gilded theater in Des Moines for the premiere of an antiabortion documentary -- and the chance to address several hundred social conservatives less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses -- there was no doubt what each would say.
The question was how ardently and vociferously they would state their opposition.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the crowd favorite judging from the cheers and applause, took credit for Senate passage of every major antiabortion bill of the last 20 years. "I've been in the foxhole on the front line," Santorum said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he would push for congressional passage of legislation enshrining into law the precept that life begins at conception.
"That could once and for all recenter the debate where it ought to be," Gingrich said. He also vowed to immediately defund Planned Parenthood, a scourge of abortion foes.
Been there, done that, said Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He said the last state budget he signed stripped funding from Planned Parenthood and forced the closure of 12 of its state chapters.
Just this week, he said, the Obama administration threatened to deny Texas federal health funding unless the money was restored. "If Washington, D.C., is looking for a fight, they found one," Perry said to a roar from the audience.
But Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann may have topped them all. She not only pledged to be "the most pro-life president in history," but touted credentials none of her rivals could match.
"I will be the first president of the United States who has willingly participated with the Lord our God Almighty in bringing forth human life," said Bachmann, the mother of five children.
The candidates are vying for the support of Iowa's Christian conservative voters, an important constituency that has yet to coalesce behind a single candidate in the Jan. 3 caucuses.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the evening's co-host and winner of the 2008 Iowa GOP vote, lauded all the candidates running this time, but singled out the four who showed up Wednesday night for special praise.
No one, he said, better understands the scheduling crunch entailed in running for president. But the four made it a priority to be on hand, Huckabee noted, and he urged the audience to give them its "sincere consideration."