Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie gestures during a discussion at a home in Toano, Va., on March 21. Gillespie faces state Sen. Frank W. Wagner and Corey Stewart in the June 13 GOP primary. (Steve Helber/AP)

Republican strategist Ed Gillespie opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk. That was his position in 2014, when he nearly unseated Sen. Mark R. Warner (D). And that’s his stance now, as he seeks the governor’s mansion.

But abortion rights groups contend that Gillespie is taking a harder line because he recently said he would like to see abortion “banned.”

“I would like to see abortion be banned because I think it is a taking of an innocent human life,” Gillespie said at a candidates’ forum over the weekend. “It is not the law of the land today.”

Gillespie made the remark after the moderator pressed him on whether he would like to see the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, the case that legalized abortion nationwide.

Gillespie campaign officials clarified afterward that any “ban” Gillespie envisions would include the exceptions that he has always supported.

“Though the attacks may change over the years, Ed’s position has not,” said Abbi Sigler, a Gillespie campaign spokeswoman.

Abortion rights activists took note of what they considered blunter language from Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Tarina Keene, executive director of ­NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said she was surprised to hear Gillespie “blatantly come out and say you want to ban abortion.”

“It’s pretty shocking for anybody to say that,” Keene said. “This does seem to be a new position and a much farther, extreme position for a major candidate to take … especially in a state that has gone from red to purple to blue and has suffered the consequences from being overly anti-women’s health and rights.”

David Turner, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democratic candidate for governor, said “a ban is a ban, and language matters in policy. I’ve watched Ed a long time — it’s the farthest he’s gone without question. He clearly is emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidency.”

Regardless of whether Gillespie’s word choice heralds a true policy shift, the attention paid to it signals something else: Abortion rights activists, wary that President Trump could remake the Supreme Court in a way that threatens Roe, will try to make abortion a central issue in the governor’s race.

Always a hotly debated topic, abortion became especially contentious in Virginia after Republicans backed a bill in 2012 that, as originally proposed, would have required most women seeking abortions to first undergo a vaginal ultrasound.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) ran four years ago on a promise to be a “brick wall” against abortion restrictions approved by the GOP-controlled General Assembly. The two Democrats vying to succeed the term-limited governor — Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello — have promised to do the same. NARAL has endorsed Northam.

NARAL’s statement made no reference to Gillespie’s GOP rivals, Corey Stewart and state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach), even though the two took stances to the right of Gillespie’s at the forum outside Lynchburg.

Gillespie has led in fundraising and endorsements, including support from the state’s most ardent antiabortion legislators. Both parties will choose their nominees in June 13 primaries.

At the forum, Wagner said he opposed Roe but would support abortion in two cases: rape and to preserve the life of the mother. Stewart, who led Trump’s Virginia campaign for most of last year and is chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, said he was opposed to any exception.

In the midst of the abortion discussion at the forum, Gillespie touted his credentials as a Catholic. “I not only went to the Catholic University of America, I served on the board of trustees there,” he said. “In order to do that, you have to be in sync with the teachings of the church.”

But the Catholic Church opposes birth-control pills and other means of artificial contraception, and Gillespie has said birth control should be made available without a prescription.

That’s a stand he took in 2014 during a debate with Warner, and it’s a position he maintains, his campaign said.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that a 2012 abortion bill requiring that women undergo a vaginal ultrasound did not fail, but rather passed after it was amended to require an abdominal ultrasound instead.