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Abortion is usually one of those issues that comes up in presidential campaigns, but plays a minor role. Not this year - both President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney are putting the issue front and center. Both campaigns have aired ads on the subject. NPR's Julie Rovner set out to see what makes this year so different.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Abortion tends to be one of those issues that appeals to a small but fervent core, in both the Democratic and Republican parties. So candidates tend to refer to it in code. Republicans talk about respecting life, while Democrats use the word "choice" a lot. But not this year. Here's part of an ad President Obama's been running in key swing states, attacking Mitt Romney for his strict anti-abortion position.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

MITT ROMNEY: Hopefully reverse Roe v. Wade...overturn Roe v. Wade ... Planned Parenthood, we're going to get rid of that... I'll cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: No matter what Mitt Romney's ads say, we know what he'll do.

ROVNER: And here's a Romney ad, trying to suggest that Romney isn't all that extreme.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: You know, those ads saying Mitt Romney would ban all abortions and contraception seemed a bit extreme, so I looked into it. Turns out, Romney doesn't oppose contraception at all. In fact, he thinks abortions should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother's life.

ROVNER: Perhaps even more curious is the fact that those very ardent anti-abortion Republicans, the same ones who worried that Romney might be too moderate on abortion during the primaries, don't seem to be that worried right now. Anna Franzonello is with the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life.

ANNA FRANZONELLO: I'm confident that the Romney administration is going to stand for the principles of protecting life and protecting conscience; that have been the mainstay of what their campaign has been saying all along.

ROVNER: So what explains all this? Ed Kilgore thinks he knows. Kilgore's a senior fellow at the Democratic centrist think tank the Progressive Policy Institute. He says that anti-abortion forces know they are this close to achieving their ultimate goal - overturning the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision.

ED KILGORE: According to just about every court-watcher, thanks to two appointments to the court by George W. Bush, there are almost certainly four justices on the court right now, that are prepared to either reverse or significantly modify Roe.

ROVNER: And with four justices over the age of 70, it's considered highly likely that the next president will have at least one chance to appoint that pivotal fifth vote, he says. But Kilgore says there's another reason reproductive issues are so front and center this year. Republicans actually brought them up first.

KILGORE: Republicans decided - near the end of the primary season, actually - that they had a big opening to go after the Catholic vote, based on the administration's contraception coverage mandate; which Republicans, and some cultural conservatives, treated as an invitation to mandatory coverage of abortion pills.

ROVNER: They also went after Planned Parenthood, something Franzonello - of Americans United for Life - defends.

FRANZONELLO: They're trying to paint Mitt Romney as being the one who's so extreme when he says, you know, we're going to cut federal funding to Planned Parenthood. What we've seen, from the Obama administration, is the extreme on the other end, too; that where states have wanted to cut their ties with the abortion industry, the Obama administration has injected itself and said no, you can't do that.

ROVNER: But Kilgore says that while in previous campaigns, Republicans may have had the upper hand by focusing on the least popular and most controversial abortions; Republicans take on more popular issues, like contraception, at their peril.

KILGORE: It's reminded people that these aren't folks that just want to maybe ban a tiny percentage of outrageous-sounding abortions but rather, a full-scale assault on all legalized abortion, and on forms of contraception.

ROVNER: Kilgore says Democrats have also been helped this year by GOP Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana, making controversial statements about abortion and rape.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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