On the facts, Carly Fiorina has been proved wrong. But on the politics, her impassioned condemnation of a Planned Parenthood video has turned her into a champion of the antiabortion movement and given her outsider candidacy new momentum.
Republicans have rallied to her side, not just to defend one of their own against fact checkers and attacks from Democrats for misrepresenting what was in the video, but also because she brings a fresh voice and perspective to what has long been a predictable debate over abortion.
“Quite a few pro-life candidates sound like they’re reading a poll-tested sound bite and often look like they can’t wait to move on to something else,” said Gary Bauer, a longtime conservative activist leader. “But her body language, her tone, her voice, her whole demeanor telegraphs that this is something that she feels deeply about — and she can explain why.”
Fiorina is a candidate unlike the others — a woman, a survivor of breast cancer, a mother who buried a grown stepchild who died from drug addiction. She has also long been an opponent of abortion, a view she says comes from personal experience: Her husband’s mother was advised to abort him but chose not to.
Becoming a champion of the antiabortion movement could be potent for Fiorina, one of a trio of non-politicians who are dominating the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Her forceful stance against abortion could allow her to build a direct connection to evangelicals and other Republicans, particularly in Iowa, where she has become a more serious contender.
“It’s refreshing that she’s willing to take a stand and call it the way it is and not beat around the bush about the barbaric killing of the unborn,” said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “She didn’t go out seeking this publicity, but her response has been fabulous.”
During a candidates’ debate at the Ronald Reagan Library two weeks ago, Fiorina created an electric moment when she said: “As regards Planned Parenthood, anyone who has watched this videotape, I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”
Independent fact checkers, including The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, have found that Fiorina’s assertion was conflated. The video in question showed stock footage of an aborted fetus with the voice of a technician talking about a procedure to harvest tissue from an aborted fetus.
Most of the other Republican presidential candidates also have spoken out against the Planned Parenthood videos, which were the subject of a high-profile congressional hearing Tuesday. But Fiorina has stood out, in part because of her unique background and message.
When Donald Trump talks about abortion, the front-runner comes across to some activists as insincere because of his earlier support for abortion rights. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum talk about the issue from a deeply religious perspective, which limits their audience. And Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, because of his role in Washington, stirs concerns about another government shutdown when he calls for defunding Planned Parenthood.
“Without a doubt, Carly gave the strongest indictment of Planned Parenthood that I’ve seen any Republican give,” said Katie Packer Gage, a Republican strategist whose firm, Burning Glass Consulting, advises candidates on communicating with female voters and has been researching public opinion on Planned Parenthood.
“She gets a lot of latitude because she’s a woman,” she continued. “It takes away a lot of the critiques that the Democrats usually launch at us — that Republicans are a bunch of old, grouchy men that want to keep women barefoot and pregnant.”
On the strength of two polished debate performances, Fiorina has risen from also-ran status to the top tier of contenders. She had the support of 11 percent of Republicans nationally in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday, tied with Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and behind only Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
But the same poll underscored the long-term political risk in Fiorina’s outspoken advocacy. Among all Americans, 47 percent had a positive view of Planned Parenthood — which provides an array of women’s health services — while 31 percent had a negative one. Fiorina has said she would be open to a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, but the poll showed a majority were opposed to eliminating it, 61 percent to 35 percent.
Fiorina has set off an onslaught of liberal commentary and attacks from Democrats. Planned Parenthood blasted out a press release titled “CARLY FIORINA LIES.” At a football tailgate in Iowa last weekend, some advocates of the women’s health organization threw condoms at her.
“Playing politics with women’s health is never a winning strategy,” said Marcy Stech, spokeswoman for Emily’s List, a group that works to elect women who support abortion rights.
Addressing Fiorina’s rising profile on the issue of abortion, Stech said, “She may be a welcome voice and face to carry this water for the Republican Party, but she’s doing it with a bag of falsehoods and lies that have been called out by every fact checker, and that’s simply not progress for women.”
Eric Ferrero, vice president for communications at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said Monday in a statement: “There is no polite way to say this: Carly Fiorina is lying. There is no video showing anything like what she claims. It’s just totally false, no matter how many times she repeats it.”
Fiorina has stood by her comments. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday, Fiorina said the videos reveal a “hideous reality” that “goes to the character of our nation.” She said: “Planned Parenthood is aborting fetuses alive to harvest their brains and other body parts. That is a fact.”
A spokeswoman for Fiorina’s campaign declined to comment for this report.
Keith Appell, a senior adviser for Carly for America, a pro-Fiorina super PAC, said that “any time a confident, articulate, poised, conservative woman steps forward, the left goes nuts.”
He added: “Someone like Carly was going to come along who would articulate the issue well from a conservative perspective and would help personalize and localize the pro-life movement in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
And to many Republicans, the issue is so powerful that the facts surrounding the video are secondary.
“Anyone who watches those videos, they don’t care what the fact checkers have to say,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson said. “They’re objectively horrifying.”