NEW YORK — Though Barack Obama and Mitt Romney rarely tackle the topic of abortion head-on, the void is being filled by rival advocacy groups targeting swing states with ads depicting one or the other candidate as an extremist in his stance on the divisive issue.
Obama, according to the National Right to Life Committee, is "the most pro-abortion president this country has ever seen." Another anti-abortion group, the Susan B. Anthony List, is running anti-Obama TV ads titled "Abortion Radical."
From the other side, groups supporting legal access to abortion, as well as the Obama campaign itself, depict Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, as eager to ban most abortions as part of a Republican "war on women." The GOP ticket "is extremely dangerous to women's health," says Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Numerous polls indicate that abortion and other hot-button social issues aren't top priorities for most Americans as they worry about jobs and health care. Yet abortion is a visceral subject for some voters — and the extent to which they turn out to vote, and perhaps sway wavering acquaintances, could make a difference in pivotal swing states.
There's extra intensity this year because Obama and Romney — reflecting their party platforms — are so polarized in regard to abortion.
Obama believes decisions about abortion should be left to women and their doctors. He affirmed this outlook during his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, where the prime-time speakers included Keenan and Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Romney opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and threat to the mother's life, and says the Supreme Court should repeal the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a nationwide right to abortion. He also would end federal aid to Planned Parenthood, which is a major provider of abortion and contraception.
"There are such sharp differences between the two candidates, it's not surprising the advocacy groups are so engaged," said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University in the swing state of Virginia. "They think other voters must feel the same way."
Planned Parenthood, through its political action affiliates, has spent more on this election than any in the past — more than $12 million, with about half the money going for TV ads in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and other battleground states.
Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said a large chunk of the funds had been donated by new contributors eager to fight back against Republican efforts to restrict abortion at the state and federal level.
"People have woken up and said, 'Not only are they serious, but they're close to imposing their will on the women of America,'" Laguens said.
Among the biggest spenders on the anti-abortion side is the Susan B. Anthony List. Along with its political action committees, it has reported more than $3 million in expenditures, including TV ads in Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Colorado.
The group's president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, said the ads seek to depict Obama as an extremist in regard to abortion and to woo undecided, socially conservative Democrats, including Hispanics.
"It's hard to argue that the 'war on women' theme has stuck," Dannenfelser said. "The gender gap has closed since the first debate, and the women's vote is the most fluid I've seen."
Some of the swing states experienced controversies earlier this year that put a spotlight on abortion even before the presidential race heated up.
In Ohio, the Legislature held hearings on a bill that would impose the nation's most severe abortion restrictions, outlawing most abortions after the first detectable fetal heartbeat, which can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy. The bill stalled, but its supporters hope to revive it after the election.
Janet Folger Porter, president of the conservative advocacy group Faith2Action, is a leading backer of the so-called "heartbeat bill" and also released a video this month denouncing Obama.
"You can question where Gov. Romney stands, but there's no question where President Obama stands on life," says Porter, depicting Obama's stance as "pro-death."
Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL's Ohio affiliate, said debate over the heartbeat bill raised voter awareness of abortion-related issues.
"This is really on a lot of Ohioans' minds," she said. "They want to know where the candidates stand."
The issue also is figuring in Ohio's Senate race, with Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown, a firm supporter of legal access to abortion, and Republican challenger Josh Mandel, an advocate of outlawing it.
In Virginia, there was a surge of protests earlier this year when the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill requiring women to undergo pre-abortion sonograms. Initially, it mandated a vaginally invasive procedure, drawing charges from female Democratic legislators that it amounted to "state mandated rape."
The provision was removed at Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's urging after the bill was mocked on national TV comedy shows. But the controversy had staying power — a Democratic legislative candidate in North Carolina has run a TV ad in which she brandishes a transvaginal wand in an effort to capitalize on the anti-abortion views of her GOP opponent.
Abortion also has been a prominent issue in Missouri's Senate race since Republican candidate Todd Akin — a foe of abortion — remarked in August that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in instances of "legitimate rape." He later called the comment a mistake, but Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill has aired anti-Akin ads featuring testimonials from women who said they were raped, including one who describes herself as a "pro-life" Republican.
Rozell, the George Mason professor, said the abortion debate could play a crucial role in the election even as the economy remains the paramount concern.
"The social issues do matter to a significant portion of voters, especially certain swing voters who might see a candidate's position on abortion as a marker," Rozell said. "Can they trust this candidate to govern responsibly, or is he beholden to an extreme element in his political party?"
He said Romney faces a tricky balancing act as he tries to woo middle-of-the road women without antagonizing religious conservatives who already are wary because Romney supported abortion rights in the past.
Last week, Romney told The Des Moines Register's editorial board that there wasn't any abortion-related legislation he planned to pursue as president. A spokeswoman quickly clarified his remark, and Romney told reporters: "I'll be a pro-life president."
This week, Romney's campaign released a TV ad suggesting the candidate believes abortion "should be an option" in certain cases.
In the ad, a woman says she'd heard Romney's position on abortion and birth control "seemed a bit extreme." She says she'd learned Romney doesn't oppose contraception and believes abortion should be available in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is at stake.
Dawn Laguens of Planned Parenthood said the ad was "designed to deceive women."
"The Romney team knows that Mitt Romney's real agenda for women's health is deeply unpopular — ending safe and legal abortion, ending Planned Parenthood's preventive care that millions of people rely on," she said.
Follow David Crary on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CraryAP