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Boxer makes abortion rights an issue in Senate race

With her eye on voters sensitive to social issues, Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer turned the conversation in her race for reelection squarely to the heated topic of abortion rights Thursday, lining up celebrities, advocacy groups and fellow legislators to help make the case that her Republican rival Carly Fiorina’s stance is “a direct threat” to the rights of women in California and the nation.

“Make no mistake about it, a woman’s right to choose is on the ballot in California this year,” Boxer said during a news conference at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel, where she noted that Fiorina has said she would support overturning Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

“Overturning Roe vs. Wade would turn women and doctors into criminals,” Boxer said. “The most extreme anti-choice groups have found their candidate in Carly Fiorina, and the pro-choice groups who are here today — they know that I am their voice.”

Fiorina, who opposes abortion except in the case of rape, incest or when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, has said the allegation is a distortion of her position. She told reporters after an event in the City of Industry that her opponent was trying to shift voters’ attention from more pressing concerns about unemployment, the rate of federal spending and Boxer’s “track record of failure.”

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“I understand that not everyone agrees with my views on the sanctity of life, but this is a typical, divisive attempt to distract from the issues that are important in this race,” Fiorina said. “Wherever people stand on that issue — the most important issue that we have to deal with right now is jobs — 2.2 million people out of work.”

In a year when voters are focused on the economy, political analysts have said Boxer could risk appearing out of touch if she tries to make abortion a central issue in the final weeks of the campaign.

Although 7 in 10 California voters favor abortion rights, Boxer has treaded carefully — citing abortion in her speeches as one issue among many on which she and Fiorina disagree. Her campaign released a Web ad highlighting Fiorina’s opposition to abortion, using images of the inside of a jail cell, but Boxer has yet to take that message to the airwaves. (She did not rule out that possibility Thursday.)

But past elections also have demonstrated that for a segment of voters — including independent voters over whom the candidates are now sparring — the issue can have resonance.

“The burden is going to be on Boxer’s side to show that this issue is, in fact, at stake, and that it is more important than the economy and other issues — and that’s where she has an uphill battle,” said Sunshine Hillygus, an associate political science professor at Duke University who co-wrote a book on wedge issues in presidential campaigns.

“On the other hand, for those voters who are somewhat ambivalent or undecided, or like some positions of one candidate and other positions of the other, if Boxer can succeed in making this issue salient, it could work to her advantage.”

Boxer’s advocacy of abortion rights has been a defining issue in her career and a powerful force in helping her raise money for her campaigns.

Emily’s List, the national organization that raises money for female candidates who support abortion rights, remains at the top of the list of Boxer’s contributors over the last five years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

At Thursday’s event, Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, described Boxer as “the brightest star in the galaxy of pro-choice leaders in our country” — an introduction that made the three-term senator visibly emotional.

Fiorina’s support from prominent abortion foes — including the National Right to Life Committee, California ProLife Council and Susan B. Anthony List, which has aired television ads on her behalf — reinforced her conservative credentials. But she has, at times, sent conflicting messages about how forceful an advocate she would be, if elected.

The former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive has not explained what actions, if any, she would take in Congress to restrict abortion if elected.

Appearing before the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board, she described abortion as “a decided issue,” and in a recent debate, she said she would not initiate action in the U.S. Senate seeking to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Earlier, however, she said she would support that, if given the opportunity.

Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA who has advised Planned Parenthood, noted that “state legislatures would be free to pass laws criminalizing abortion” if the landmark federal court decision were overturned. “That would mean that doctors, and potentially women, would be put in jail for having abortions,” he said.

Fiorina ignored a question about that possibility Thursday, answering with her standard response about what she describes as Boxer’s diversionary tactics.

maeve.reston@latimes.com


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