TINLEY PARK, Ill. -- Some of them closed their eyes as Mike Huckabee talked. Some of them winced; some clasped their hands to their chests. They were anti-abortion activists, gathered for a daylong conference on "Why All Lives Matter," listening to the former governor of Arkansas describe the contents of sting videos that caught Planned Parenthood executives "callously chomping on salad, sipping wine, and speak of trading body parts as if they're trading the parts to a used Buick." His audience had just eaten lunch.
"Anybody who can watch that video," said Huckabee, "and listen to them talking about the harvesting of human hearts, and livers and kidneys; listen to them talking about selling enough so that they could have a Lamborghini; I can only surmise that this person has what the Bible calls a 'seared conscience,' no longer able to feel the guilt they should feel."
The Republican fight against Planned Parenthood's federal funding is not new. The videos recorded by the anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress have rattled Democrats, but even as it's squirmed about the details, President Obama's party has pledged to protect the $528 million that taxpayers dole out annually for Planned Parenthood's family planning and health services.
That steadfastness has only accelerated a primary inside the Republican primary. There's a contest underway to see who can hit Planned Parenthood the hardest. The entries run from merely hoping to defund the group, to promising to block a must-pass spending bill unless it defunds the group, to attacking Planned Parenthood's legal status the way Eliot Ness might go after a moonshine warehouse.
That's in stark contrast to the relative quiet that followed the Supreme Court's decision this year to legalize gay marriage nationwide. Abortion animates social conservatives -- viscerally, morally and politically -- along with their candidates as no other issue can.
"We can no longer allow the atrocities committed by an organization that receives state and federal tax dollars, and that receives special tax treatment from the federal government," said former Texas governor Rick Perry in a Friday statement. "I am calling for the revocation of the federal nonprofit charters of the Planned Parenthood Federation Of America and its political wing, Planned Parenthood Action. The Obama Administration targets groups with the word ‘patriot’ in their name but does nothing to an organization that cuts apart and sells the body parts of dead babies."
Perry has taken the hardest line of any contender. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has been the most moderate, reacting to the video by calling for a congressional investigation into Planned Parenthood and a review of its funding. It's been easy for his gubernatorial rivals to drive to his right. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) launched a statewide investigation of the group, leaving some exasperated chapters explaining that they did not perform abortions, and thus had no fetal tissue to donate or talk callously about. Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) boasted that one of his first acts in power was to cut the group's state funding. "We need to be defunding Planned Parenthood, not only state by state, but I think, across the country," Walker told Fox News, a departure from his habit of saying policy fights should be decided locally.
The scramble is even rowdier among the Republicans currently serving on Capitol Hill. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) started the week promoting his bill to defund Planned Parenthood and ended it with a Web ad and video about his battle. "As a pro-life doctor, Rand Paul cared for premature babies to save their sight," says a narrator in the new ad. "As a conservative leader, Rand is forcing the vote this week to end taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood."
Some in Paul's campaign point to the Planned Parenthood fight as a reason for the senator's steady uptick in a Reuters tracking poll. Paul himself has none-too-subtly compared his guaranteed vote on the bill with Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Tex.) failure to attach it to a must-pass bill. Cruz, who's at home warring with "the Washington cartel," said in a fundraising letter this week that the defeat had only fueled his passion.
"This is a national tragedy, but the liberal media won't treat it as such," said Cruz in the letter. "In fact, the very same people, who after the shootings in Charleston, SC, and Aurora, CO, want to take guns away, will in the same breath support and defend taking away a child's life." The same day Cruz said that, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) fired off a tweet that asked why the shooting of "Cecil the Lion" had sparked more outrage than the Planned Parenthood videos. There wasn't much evidence of that. By week's end, a growing number of congressional Republicans were suggesting that Planned Parenthood funding be stripped in the government funding bill scheduled for after the August recess.
To Democrats, it sounded as though the GOP's presidential candidates were setting up another shutdown fight -- one in the heat of the presidential primary, and one that would turn all attention to Cruz and Paul. Democrats might welcome that. So would the anti-abortion movement, where it's felt that the new sting videos have shifted the national conversation. At the Friday conference in Illinois, Planned Parenthood was discussed as an issue that could win over black voters and millennials. Matt Batzel, the national executive director of the political organizing group American Majority, argued that the right could turn Planned Parenthood into a "Death Star," a villain that all voters could understand.
Meanwhile, candidates like Perry were trying to make the Death Star even scarier. Huckabee refused to let himself be outflanked. "I will not pretend there is nothing we can do to stop this," he told the crowd at a Pizza Ranch campaign stop in Jefferson, Iowa Thursday, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. "All American citizens should be protected," he later told the paper's reporter. When the reporter asked whether that would mean involving the FBI or federal forces, Huckabee had this response, said the paper: "We'll see if I get to be president."
Asked later in the day if he would, as Perry had, favor the end of Planned Parenthood's non-profit status, Huckabee seemingly talked himself into it.
"They're making money hand over fist," Huckabee told The Washington Post after a lengthy sit-down with an Illinois-based Christian television station. "I don't know how they could call themselves non-profit. I don't know how they could call themselves anything other than a hideous organization that sells body parts illegally."