DES MOINES, Iowa — One once-prominent, divisive social issue was missing from much of the conversation at a top summit of conservatives and Republicans here over the weekend: Gay marriage.
Speakers at the Iowa Freedom Summit, which featured almost a dozen potential GOP presidential prospects, stayed away from it. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the 2012 Iowa caucuses but is focusing less on the social issues that endeared him to social conservatives and evangelicals, was annoyed reporters kept bringing it up in their questions.
“I’m wondering if every candidate gets this question as much as I do,” he quipped.
Could abortion replace it as a key dividing line ahead of 2016?
Last week, House Republican leaders — with their biggest margins in more than six decades — suffered through an embarrassing spectacle when they failed to garner enough votes to bring to the floor a bill that would have banned most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Its passage was intended to be a message, coinciding perfectly with the annual March for Life in Washington. Instead, it became another spectacle in which House Republicans couldn’t agree on a social issue, derailed by emerging power from more moderate and some women members of the caucus concerned about how it would play with women and younger voters.
“I was deeply disappointed that the bill was not moving forward,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the sponsor of the bill, in an interview with Fusion at the Freedom Summit.
She told Fusion that House Republican leadership is still committed to bringing up the bill at a later date. Leadership has asked pro-life women in the caucus to address concerns over some provisions in the bill, including one that permitted a raped woman to obtain an abortion only if she reported the rape to police previously.
She characterized the dispute as a “language issue.” But she made it clear that moving forward on the bill, which is called the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, would require a delicate balance.
“The goal is to further the cause of life,” she said. “The goal is to have the discussion about the bill returned to being about the baby — an unborn baby. And also, we don’t want to put something into a bill or say something in the House that would adversely impact the progress that’s being made across America.”
But across the summit, the frustration at the bill’s immediate failure was palpable.
Santorum said he was “disappointed” by “some members who felt uncomfortable.” He seemed tongue-tied in trying to explain those members’ concerns out loud.
The bill forces a woman to make a choice within about five months of pregnancy, he said.
“I understand people have concerns about things, but it’s five months,” he told Fusion. “We’re not talking about making someone make a decision about pregnancy early in the pregnancy. You know my feelings about that, but that’s not what this bill does. It says five months. You have five months to determine whether you want to have an abortion. At some point, this child gets some rights.”
Courting Iowa’s evangelical conservatives, many speakers at the Freedom Summit made clear where they stood on the issue of the bill and on abortion in general.
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive and possible 2016 presidential candidate, blasted House leadership for the conference’s failure to pass the bill. She made it a key theme of her speech, which was among the most well-received at the Freedom Summit and put her on Iowa’s map as a candidate.
Other candidates touted their credentials to the crowd. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie highlighted his “pro-life” stance by emphasizing his position against abortion and in the context of his establishment of drug-treatment programs.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who said he’ll be back in Iowa “many more times,” bragged about eliminating the state’s funding for Planned Parenthood. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) emphasized his own pro-life stance while encouraging Iowans to demand to see the conservative credentials about which every candidate will brag to them, including on the issue of abortion.
But some conservatives stressed that they may have to get on the same page themselves. Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative activist and the editor of RedState, told Fusion last week that conservatives in the House Republican conference are in “great disarray” because of distrust in its organizing arm, the Republican Study Committee.
“I think this will actually force conservatives to re-organize in a more detailed way and they may just learn some lessons from the moderate disruption today,” he said.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.