DENVER — A conservative Republican trying to unseat a rookie Democratic senator in Colorado is scrambling to explain his position on abortion in light of a ballot proposal to outlaw the procedure.
Ken Buck, a tea party favorite challenging Sen. Michael Bennet, leads the incumbent in several polls and has drawn the support of abortion opponents for saying it should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest.
Earlier this year, he endorsed a proposed amendment to the state constitution to set up a direct challenge to the federal government over rights for fetuses. The so-called "personhood" amendment would give constitutional rights to people from conception.
But Buck changed his position after doctors and lawyers pointed out that the amendment would also ban some types of fertility treatments and emergency contraception. Buck now says he's not taking a position on the abortion-blocking amendment because of those concerns.
"I am in favor of personhood as a concept," Buck said on CBS' "Face the Nation" last week. "I am not taking a position on any of the state amendments. And I have said over and over, and it's been reported over and over again, that I am not in favor of banning any common forms of birth control in Colorado or in the United States."
Buck's changing stance has conservative abortion opponents scratching their heads. He supports the concept, they ask, but not the actual amendment?
"Is he just trying to piss everybody off? I don't get it," said Diana Hseih of Sedalia, a registered Republican who supports abortion rights. Hseih wrote an argument against the "personhood" plan on her blog and says Buck's parsing of words on abortion is drawing opposition on both sides.
"This is a point on which Democrats can hammer him, and it's going to make the religious right angry, too," Hseih said.
The head of Personhood Colorado, a suburban Denver group of abortion opponents that petitioned the measure onto ballots, said he was surprised when Buck endorsed the idea in the first place, but then disappointed by the change.
"I was pretty excited to be voting for him, but I have to say he seems to be doing the primary/general two-step here," Gualberto Garcia Jones said.
Another group backing the amendment, Right To Life Colorado, planned to decide at a board meeting next month whether to endorse Buck given his changing stance. The group has about 5,000 members in Colorado and is not affiliated with the National Right To Life group, which does not back the amendment.
Meanwhile, Democrats are pummeling Buck as an extremist on abortion. A similar proposal was defeated almost 3-to-1 in 2008, and in campaign ads and promotional materials Democrats and left-leaning groups call Buck an extremist for opposing abortion and once supporting the "personhood" measure.
"The idea that somebody could support a policy that banned abortion, even in the cases of rape and incest, as a father, I just can't agree with," Bennet said in a recent debate with Buck. Buck said simply, "I am pro-life."
A coalition of groups including Planned Parenthood even called invited rape and incest survivors to speak out about their opposition to Buck on abortion grounds.
"How is it possible that anyone running for public office would say a woman who is a victim of rape or incest has no choices, in this day and age?" asked Emilie Ailts, 58, who was raped as a teenager but did not become pregnant. Ailts joined a press conference sponsored by the anti-Buck groups and called him "the wrong choice."
Buck's spokesman, Owen Loftus, says Buck remains opposed to abortion but has withdrawn support for the abortion amendment because of concerns about what it would do.
"Ken's pro-life, but Ken is not in favor getting rid of the pill," Loftus said.
It's unclear how voters will respond to Buck's mixed messages. One of those wondering is Dean Boehler, a 57-year-old contractor from western Colorado who supports Buck.
"I believe in protecting life from conception to the end of life, but the Democrats, it seems like they're using scare tactics here," said Boehler.
Another Republican, Bobbie Chiles of the South Platte Republican Women's Club in suburban Denver, said she supports abortion rights but isn't about to abandon Buck because they disagree on the issue.
"Democrats see this as an opportunity to discredit Ken Buck, but I think most people are smart enough to know one person isn't going to be able to do away with Roe v. Wade," said Chiles, president of the South Platte Republican Women's Club.
Bennet on abortion: http://bennetforcolorado.com/issues/details/2009-09-reproductive-choice
Buck on abortion: http://www.buckforcolorado.com/respect-life
Personhood Colorado: http://www.personhoodcolorado.com
Campaign for a Strong Colorado: http://strongcolorado.org