Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio is making it clear to a national audience that he opposes legal abortion even in the case of pregnancies that result from rape and incest, a position that's opposed by a large majority of Americans—and one that the Democratic front-runner is already attempting to exploit.

In the first debate Thursday, the Rubio corrected Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly when she asked why he has supported anti-abortion legislation with exceptions for pregnancies due to rape and incest. He said he has "never advocated" for exemptions. In subsequent interviews with CNN and NBC, Rubio said he has supported bills with those exceptions only because they expanded abortion restrictions. He made it clear he prefers that the procedure be illegal even in cases of rape and incest.

"I personally and deeply believe that all human life is worthy of the protection of our laws. I do. And I believe that irrespective of the conditions by which that life was conceived or anything else," Rubio said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "I personally believe you do not correct one tragedy with a second tragedy," he said Friday on CNN.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton attacked Rubio for his stance on Monday at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, describing him as part of a party that's hostile to women.

"When one of their major candidates—a much younger man, the senator from Florida—says there should be no exceptions for rape and incest, that is as offensive and as troubling a comment as you can hear from a major candidate running for the presidency," she told reporters in New Hampshire. She said that compared to other Republicans like Donald Trump, who is under fire for derogatory comments about Kelly, Rubio's "attitude toward women is very much the same. It is just delivered in a different package."

Clinton: Rubio’s Comments on Abortion 'Deeply Troubling'

Rubio eagerly took up the debate. In a statement his campaign issued within hours of her remarks, the senator accused Clinton of "radical views" on abortion. "Hillary Clinton supports abortion even at the stage when an unborn child can feel pain," he said. "She supports funding Planned Parenthood even after they have been exposed for their role in selling the organs of unborn children." The reference is to a controversy over the women's health care group's use of fetal tissue from abortions; Planned Parenthood says it donates the tissue for medical research and that payments are to cover costs and not to turn a profit. 

The no-exceptions position abortion puts him in the same camp as Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, two presidential rivals who are vying for the important evangelical vote in Iowa, the state where the first ballots of the presidential contest will be cast. But it puts Rubio in opposition to the last five Republican presidential nominees.

Prominent Republicans disagree

Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, and George H.W. Bush each wanted to make abortion illegal but backed exceptions for rape, incest and when the mother's life is at stake. Rubio's rival and fellow Floridian Jeb Bush is following in the footsteps of his brother and father. Bush "supports exceptions for rape, incest and life of mother," his spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger said in an e-mail.

This has long been a dilemma for Republican politicians. Opposition to abortion is a litmus test for the base, and the issue has torn Americans down the middle for a generation. But the public overwhelmingly supports exceptions for rape and incest. A 2012 CNN poll found that 83 percent want abortion to be legal in those two circumstances, while just 14 percent said it should be illegal. A 2012 YouGov survey commissioned by Huffington Post found that 76.5 percent of registered voters believe it should be legal in those instances. Gallup surveys dating back to 1996 have consistently found that 75 to 78 percent of Americans agree.

To many anti-abortion activists, however, exceptions for rape and incest are hypocritical. National Right to Life executive director David O'Steen told the Associated Press last year that it "doesn't want any child conceived by rape or incest to be killed by abortion." The group has given Rubio a 100 percent record in the 112th and 113th Congresses. "I'll support any legislation that reduces the number of abortions," Rubio said Sunday on NBC.

Questions 'life of the mother' exception

"A rape is an act of violence. It's a horrifying thing that happens. And fortunately, the number of abortions in this country that are due to rape are very small, less than 1 percent of the cases in the world," Rubio said on NBC, adding: "That being said, I personally and deeply believe that all human life is worthy of the protection of our laws. I do. And I believe that irrespective of the conditions by which that life was conceived or anything else."

In his Meet The Press interview, Rubio sympathized with a possible abortion exception for the mother's life, but wondered if it was necessary. "Well, of all the exceptions that people talk about, certainly protecting the life of the mother is the one that I think holds the highest validity," he said. "And there's a debate about today, given modern medicine, whether there is any condition that only abortion could save a mother's life in a viable pregnancy."

While Rubio's position may make evangelical voters happy, it is also seen as an opportunity for Democratic strategists, who think it will make Rubio vulnerable in the general election, should he win the party's nomination. 

'So wildly insulting'

Pollster and Democratic strategist Celinda Lake called it a "very extreme" and "out of touch" position that's "very, very, very out of the mainstream for women voters" in particular.

"I think it'll create huge problems for him in a general election. I think it already feeds on a perception that voters have that the Republicans are out of touch with women, and they've been trying to repair that," Lake said. "It's interesting for Rubio because he's trying to be the new look of the Republican party, the modern guy, the guy who gets it and the fresh face. And this just makes you extreme and out of touch."

In a contest with Clinton, whom Rubio already has tried to portray as being at the wrong end of a generational contest, the potential first woman president would be "particularly able to make the argument that this is someone who's really out of touch with women's lives," said Lake. Democrats think it would help them to mobilize women—particularly millennials and unmarried women—and help pro-choice groups raise money.

"Most Americans would say it's probably not a good idea to lock up a woman who's a victim of rape because she doesn't want to carry the baby of her rapist," said Paul Begala, a longtime ally of the Clintons who's advising a pro-Hillary super-PAC.

Jess McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the pro-choice Democratic group EMILY's List, said the no-exceptions Republican position was "so wildly insulting it's hard to imagine they can continue a conversation with women voters about much of anything."

'Democrats are the real extremists'

Republican strategist and pollster Kellyanne Conway disagreed and said Republicans are on firm ground opposing abortion in all circumstances. She argued that Rubio's stance was "the best way" to discuss the issue in that he's "focusing on the value of the child."

The "real extremists," Conway argued, are the Democrats, suggesting that Republicans should cast Democrats as proponents of "partial-birth" abortion and taxpayer-funded abortion. "There's no give. There's no give on the left at all," she said. "A woman doesn't have a right to do whatever she wants with her body every which way to Sunday."

Rubio defended his position in a tweet on Monday:

https://twitter.com/marcorubio/status/630831040592936960

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