WASHINGTON -- The first signs of real damage to Herman Cain's campaign emerged Thursday as his position on abortion -- that he is personally anti-abortion but believes it's "not the government's role ... to make that decision" -- began to register with conservative Iowa activists.
"That is a pro-choice position," Bob Vander Plaats, a social conservative leader in Iowa, told The Huffington Post. "It's not where we're at on the issue and it's not where a lot of caucus-goers are at on the life issue. They believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned."
Cain put out a statement late in the day on Thursday trying to clarify his position, but he still did not address the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, raising questions about whether he believes in the legal right to abortion despite his strenuous rhetoric in the past claiming to be, in his own words, "pro-life."
Cain said he thought the question he was asked by CNN's Piers Morgan on Wednesday night was "whether that I, as president, would simply 'order' people to not seek an abortion."
"My answer was focused on the role of the President. The President has no constitutional authority to order any such action by anyone. That was the point I was trying to convey. As to my political policy view on abortion, I am 100% pro-life. End of story. I will appoint judges who understand the original intent of the Constitution. Judges who are committed to the rule of law know that the Constitution contains no right to take the life of unborn children," Cain said in his statement. "I will oppose government funding of abortion. I will veto any legislation that contains funds for Planned Parenthood. I will do everything that a President can do, consistent with his constitutional role, to advance the culture of life."
But a Cain spokesman, reached by phone Thursday evening, declined to explain why the Roe v. Wade decision was not mentioned and would not say whether Cain thinks abortion should be illegal.
"The statement was very deliberate and exact," said the campaign spokesman, who asked not to be identified by name. "We don't have anything to add to the statement."
Abortion is an especially important issue in Iowa, where voters tend to be more socially conservative. And the Hawkeye State -- which goes first in the primary process -- is open enough to someone like Cain to lift him from a long shot to a contender.
But before Cain put out his statement on Thursday, his comments from the CNN appearance had already reverberated around Iowa.
"[It] hurts him," Ann Trimble-Ray, an Iowa activist who works for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), said in an email. "It will cause his current wave to die sooner than it would otherwise."
Another Iowa Republican operative said that there are "troubled waters ahead" for Cain but said "he has time to clean it up."
Craig Robinson, a former Iowa GOP official who now runs a political blog in the state, wrote: "Basically, Cain's position as a candidate is that of pro-abortion activists. The government has no right to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body."
Even if Cain clarifies his position and somehow satisfies the anti-abortion crowd, his comments are a lightning rod that will open the door on the right to a closer examination of his broader record.
That evolution was already on display in a column posted Thursday by Iowa radio talk show host Steve Deace, where he ran through his concerns about Cain's positions on the TARP bailout, the Federal Reserve, foreign policy, gay marriage, abortion and gun rights.
"Cain is good at regurgitating talking points, but when he is forced to explain what he believes the devil is usually found in the details," Deace wrote. "Based on the testimony of his own words, Cain is neither ready, willing, nor able to honor the oath of office required of a President of the United States."
If Cain were to clarify his remarks and come out in support of overturning Roe v. Wade, that might arrest the downward spiral that has begun. But it might not be enough to stop it. Trimble-Ray said that the abortion comments were not the only thing hurting Cain.
"So do his retractions and denials. He needs to be better prepared and understand how these mistakes affect him long term," she said, referring to the numerous times that Cain has misspoken and walked himself back, on whether Muslims would serve in his administration, to whether he would swap Guantanamo Bay detainees for a U.S. soldier held hostage by terrorists.
Cain's ascent to the top of the polls in the Republican presidential primary has prompted much head-scratching from professionals who see him as a political novice. But despite predictions of his eventual demise, Cain has not lost momentum in the past two weeks despite many criticisms of his 999 tax reform plan from many corners of the conservative spectrum.
Not many expected Cain's candidacy to be brought down by abortion. Cain's comments on CNN Wednesday evening about abortion sparked surprise from conservative leaders.
"Its an outlier from statements he's made in the past," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who said he had called Cain to try to clarify what he meant, but had not yet talked to him. "I would rather give him the benefit of the doubt until I talk to him."
Cain was asked Wednesday evening by CNN's Piers Morgan for his view on abortion in the case of rape.
"It ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make. Not me as president, not some politician, not a bureaucrat. It gets down to that family. And whatever they decide, they decide. I shouldn't have to tell them what decision to make for such a sensitive issue," Cain said.
He added a minute later: "I can have an opinion on an issue without it being a directive on the nation. The government shouldn't be trying to tell people everything to do, especially when it comes to social decisions that they need to make."
Cain gave an even more confusing answer to Fox News' John Stossel in July. Stossel asked Cain if there were "any cases where [abortion] should be legal."
"I don't think government should make that decision," Cain said. Moments later he said, "People shouldn't just be free to abort." He added: "Abortion should not be legal."
But asked whether a woman should have an abortion if she is raped, Cain said: "That's her choice. That is not government's choice." (Read a transcript of the exchange here.)