NEW YORK | An unusually large contingent of female Republican candidates with strong anti-abortion views is heating up debate on the issue and could change the political equation in the next Congress.
In California, Nevada, Delaware and New Hampshire, the GOP nominees for Senate are women who favor outlawing most abortions. All have been endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who calls herself a "pro-life feminist."
A win by any one of them would mark a distinct change. All 17 women now in the Senate, including four Republicans, support relatively broad abortion rights.
Of the four new Republican challengers, only Christine O'Donnell in Delaware - the "tea party" favorite who has never held elective office - is viewed as a long shot six weeks out from the Nov. 2 election. Carly Fiorina in California, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and even Sharron Angle in Nevada - the former state legislator running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid - all are given a real chance of victory in their races.
"It is absolutely vital that we have women in the U.S. Senate on the front lines of the pro-life movement," said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion female candidates and vows to spend at least $3 million on key Senate races.
In the current Senate, Ms. Dannenfelser said, a pro-choice female senator such as California's Barbara Boxer "goes unchallenged telling our pro-life men they can't speak for women."
Mrs. Boxer, a liberal California Democrat seeking her fourth term, faces a vigorous challenge from Mrs. Fiorina, a former chief executive officer at Hewlett-Packard, in a state that traditionally has supported abortion rights. Mrs. Fiorina says she favors overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling establishing a right to abortion, while Mrs. Boxer is one of the Senate's staunchest abortion rights advocates.
"It's been very hard for anti-abortion candidates to win statewide in California, but so far the polls are tight," said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "If Carly Fiorina wins this race, that would be a shocker."
The four Republican women now in the Senate - Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska - vary in their stances on restricting abortion, but all support the basic rights established by Roe v. Wade, as do all of the Senate's 13 Democratic women.
Plenty of male Republican senators are ardent foes of abortion, but anti-abortion activists yearn to add at least one women to those ranks, in part because they think a pro-life female senator could be an effective weapon in questioning future Supreme Court nominees on legal issues surrounding abortion.
Mrs. Fiorina and Mrs. Ayotte say they oppose abortions except in cases of rape, incest or danger to a mother's life. Ms. O'Donnell and Mrs. Angle, along with at least three Republican men running for Senate, have said they do not favor exceptions for rape and incest - prompting charges of extremism from some pro-choice opponents.
"I think these ... candidates are going to trip over their own hypocrisy in the next few weeks," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "They talk about no government intrusion in people's lives, yet they're wanting to interfere with women's very private medical decisions."
In California, Mrs. Fiorina has tried to avoid sounding strident on abortion as she courts moderate voters. She said her views derive in part from her inability to have children and her husband's own life story.
"I believe in the sanctity of life," she said in a television interview. "In my particular case, my mother-in-law was told to abort her child, who became my husband. She chose something different, obviously, and that made all the difference in her life and mine, and certainly his."
Nationwide, the economy and health care appear to be the priorities for most voters, but polls indicate interest in the abortion debate among conservative evangelicals - a key part of the GOP base - is far higher than among the public at large.