WASHINGTON — Carly Fiorina and her husband, Frank, tried without success to have children. And when her mother-in-law experienced health problems while she was carrying Frank, doctors advised her to terminate her pregnancy.
"Those experiences shape and add color to what my faith taught me," said Fiorina, an abortion opponent and one of three GOP candidates vying to supplant California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, a strong backer of abortion rights.
While the issue is intensely personal for Fiorina, abortion has largely faded as a major public concern in 2010, at least so far. With the economy still sputtering, the Republican candidates say that voters are much more focused on bread-and-butter issues this year.
For former Rep. Tom Campbell, the frontrunner in the race, it's deja vu: In the 2000 GOP Senate race, he was the lone candidate in a three-way field to support abortion rights. He won the GOP primary, only to lose to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the general election.
But 10 years ago, with a stronger economy, Campbell said abortion was a much more prominent issue for Republicans. This year, he said, no one is talking about it.
"It never comes up," said Campbell. "People are out of work. People are worried that their children won't get a job. That's where the focus is."
He just wishes that his party would quit fighting about the issue for good.
"There's just so much that unites the Republican Party," he said. "The focus on abortion, that tends to be something that has divided us."
The third candidate in the race, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who claims to be the most conservative of the three Senate hopefuls, said that "no issue should be off the table" for Republicans.
"A lot of issues divide the party," said DeVore, who opposes abortion rights. "That doesn't mean you don't talk about it."
In the past two weeks, Fiorina has become the darling of abortion rights opponents, winning endorsements from the National Right to Life Committee, the California Pro-Life Council and the Susan B. Anthony List, which calls itself a national pro-life political action committee.
Last week, she also scored the endorsement of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, an outspoken abortion opponent. That move, however, angered many of Palin's Tea Party supporters, who primarily back DeVore.
Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard, said her mother-in-law had serious health issues and was warned that a pregnancy would put too big of a strain on her heart.
"She was told by her doctor that she couldn't make it through the delivery and the pregnancy," Fiorina said. "But she was a woman of very strong faith and put her trust in God."
Fiorina said she opposes abortions, with exceptions: If they're required to save the life of the mother, or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
DeVore would allow abortions only to save the mother's life. In cases of rape and incest, he said, it's still wrong to end the life of an unborn child.
"I don't think you should hold it against the unborn child, the circumstances of their conception," DeVore said. He said the anti-abortion groups that are backing Fiorina are "more establishment oriented than they are philosophically oriented."
Fiorina said Boxer is too liberal in her backing of abortion rights and that the three-term senator "believes in any abortion, anytime, anywhere, for any reason."
Boxer has been a polarizing figure when it comes to abortion. While she gets scores of zero from groups that oppose abortion rights, she has consistently received scores of 100 from groups that back abortion rights, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America. EMILY's List, which gives money to Democratic women who back abortion rights, is working hard for Boxer, proclaiming her among "candidates we love" this year.
Californians overwhelmingly support abortion rights, according to a Field Poll released in August 2009. The poll found that 70 percent of voters approved of allowing abortions, compared with 51 percent in 1975. But the issue has been more divisive for Republicans than for Democrats. The poll found that 82 percent of Democrats backed abortion rights, compared with 55 percent of Republicans.
Fiorina said she isn't worried about her stance hurting her in a general election.
"If it does, so be it," she said. "I believe strongly in the sanctity of life."
Like Campbell, she's not expecting abortion to be much of an issue.
"All of the polls and all of my experience say that the issue on the table right now is jobs and out-of-control government spending," she said.
But with less than four weeks remaining before the June 8 primary, it won't be a surprise if abortion still emerges as an issue in the waning days of the campaign, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.
"Social issues have always become hot-button issues in political campaigns, even when they're receding in the background during normal times," he said. "In the heat of a campaign, if there are significant differences between candidates on the issues, that's when they can rear their head."
This year, he said, all three candidates are going after different segments of the Republican base with their abortion messages.
"Fiorina and DeVore could use abortion as one of the issues that separate them from Campbell and say, 'You know, I'm a conservative on this issue,'" he said.
Campbell said his stance on abortion goes beyond politics and has never been an attempt to win votes.
"My view is my view," he said. "It's not something that I change in order to find a better spot in the primary. That's what I believe and what I've always believed."
Fiorina, by the way, said she's obviously very happy with her mother-in-law's decision not to have an abortion.
"I was not able to have children of my own and so I know that life is a precious gift," she said. "And my husband's mother was told to abort him. She chose not to. It was a very difficult birth and she spent almost a year in the hospital after he was born, but he turned out to be the joy of her life — and the rock of my life."