The long process of winnowing down the candidates for each party’s presidential nomination – a process that began almost immediately after the last presidential election in 2004 – began with the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primaries in early January. (A caucus and primary are different ways voters within each state apportion delegates among the candidates prior to the formal nominating convention in the summer.) While the war in Iraq, the economy and health care are the top priorities of voters, life issues have also been featured prominently in the campaign, too.

On the Democratic side, all the candidates are pro-abortion, pro-embryonic stem cell research, and, with a single exception, against the federal ban on partial-birth abortion. (Pro-abortion Senator Joseph Biden, who dropped out of the race in early January, voted to ban PBA, although he later criticized a Supreme Court decision upholding the federal ban.) After the race heated up – when primary voters didn‘t hand the nomination to Clinton on a silver platter – Senators Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), debated who would better defend abortion “rights,” even though both are co-sponsors of the Freedom of Choice Act. After Clinton attacked Obama on the issue, Planned Parenthood officials defended Obama by saying they trusted him to protect abortion “rights” if elected president.

Indeed, many abortion advocates are displeased with Clinton. After a lifetime of abortion advocacy, in recent years the former first lady has taken to her husband’s line of saying she wants an America where abortion is safe, legal and rare and has gone so far as to call abortion “tragic.” Many feminists cannot countenance such heterodoxy on the issue and have supported Clinton’s opponents in the primaries.

Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, for example, has endorsed former senator John Edwards and works as an organizer for his campaign. She said last year, “Edwards is a person women can depend on to defend their rights,” which was read as a slight against Clinton, the first serious female candidate for a party’s presidential nomination.

And just as abortion advocates are backing different Democratic candidates, pro-lifers in the Republican party have not settled on one candidate, although those in the GOP field represent a greater diversity of views.

For the first time since the 1970s, the Republicans looked like they might nominate a supporter of abortion over a pro-life candidate. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, the one-time frontrunner, supports abortion, embryonic stem cell research (with limitations) and same-sex “marriage.” But he also felt the need to reach out to socially conservative voters by vowing to appoint “strict constructionist” judges like Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, supporting the ban on partial-birth abortion and promising to reduce abortions by promoting adoption.

Ironically, during his tenure leading New York, abortion numbers fell faster than the national average, even though the city enacted subsidies for abortion at his urging. In November, televangelist and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson endorsed Giuliani’s campaign, although it seemed to have little effect on the former mayor’s fortunes. Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, said Giuliani’s poor showing in the early primaries, where he has yet to win double-digit support, was the result of his arrogance in ignoring the pro-life and evangelical base of the Republican party. Unless he were to win in New York, California and New Jersey in the Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5, he is likely to drop out of the race soon.

The new frontrunners are Senator John McCain (Ariz.), former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. All three are pro-life, although McCain and Romney are not without their issues.

McCain has a lifetime National Right to Life Committee voting record of 80 per cent, although he has never provided leadership on the abortion issue, just a reliable vote. Unfortunately, he supports federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and was instrumental in enacting campaign finance reform, a law that hurts the ability of advocacy groups, including pro-lifers, to disseminate information during election campaigns. He went so far as to oppose Wisconsin Right to Life’s Supreme Court fight to defend their right to criticize a pro-abortion Democrat, Russ Feingold (who co-authored McCain’s campaign finance reform law).

Romney supports the pro-life position – at least for now. During a failed 1994 Senate challenge to Ted Kennedy and when he was first elected governor in 2002, Romney, a Mormon, supported abortion. He says he his views have “evolved and deepened,” the catalyst being the embryonic stem cell issue. He wrote in the Boston Globe, “In considering the issue of embryo cloning and embryo farming, I saw where the harsh logic of abortion can lead – to the view of innocent new life as nothing more than research material or a commodity to be exploited.” He went on to veto an emergency contraception bill and has been outspoken about the need to restore traditional values. Some social conservatives worry that his conversion to the pro-life side is more politically convenient than sincere, but Romney vows to follow in the footsteps of other converts to pro-life, such as Ronald Reagan and Henry Hyde.

Huckabee is an evangelical and pro-lifer. He has always supported laws to defend human life, signed a bill as governor to ban partial-birth abortion and has been outspoken against embryonic stem cell research. However, Huckabee has not broken out from the pack, despite an unexpected win in the Iowa caucus. He has little appeal beyond evangelicals and worries the Republican establishment and many within the conservative movement with his populist economic message. Many worry that he threatens the Republican coalition of social conservatives, foreign-policy hawks and small government conservatives brought together under Reagan’s leadership. Some pundits see his candidacy as an attempt to land the vice-presidential nomination.

One of the more interesting candidates is Rep. Ron Paul (Tx.), a former Libertarian presidential candidate and obstetrician-gynecologist. Despite radical libertarian leanings, he has been a lifelong critic of abortion, saying in one GOP debate last year that in 20 years of delivering babies, he never saw a case for a medically necessary abortion. While the mainstream media ignore Paul, he consistently draws about 10 per cent of the vote and finished second in the Nevada caucus. He has no chance to break into the top tier of candidates, but his outspokenness on abortion, as well as national sovereignty, is a refreshing change in the world of politics. He has also been endorsed by Norma McCorvey of Roe v. Wade fame.

The other candidates, who have all since dropped out, were all pro-life. Congressman Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo, Senator Sam Brownback, are solidly pro-life and former senator and Law and Order actor Fred Thompson, whose candidacy failed to take off, was endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee. When Thompson criticized the Roe v. Wade decision, he went beyond the complaint that it represented judicial activism at its worst, saying it “was bad law and bad medical science.” He spoke in favour of medically superior adult stem cell research. But he dropped out of the race on Jan. 22 after a disappointing third-place showing in the South Carolina primary. His name is being mentioned as a possible attorney-general if the Republicans win in November.

With Giuliani’s poor showing, and considering the views of the rest of the candidates, including Romney’s new-found pro-life positions, it is obvious that the Republicans are still a largely pro-life party. University of Alabama professor Michael J. New said, “Pro-lifers still wield a considerable amount of influence in Republican primaries and pro-life voters want to at least nominate a candidate who will help them build on the hard-fought incremental gains made since Roe v. Wade.” Although it looked last year like Giuliani might win the GOP nomination, for a combination of reasons, including the strength of the pro-life vote, he now looks unlikely to do so.

Since the late 1980s, the pundits have predicted the demise of the religious right and celebrated its irrelevancy. But the Republicans have not had a presidential or vice-presidential candidate who has supported abortion since Gerald Ford in 1976. That is because evangelicals make up at least a third of the Republican party and as a group are their largest constituency. About seven in 10 evangelicals vote Republican, a percentage of the vote that has increased over time but has now levelled off. Since 2000, a slight majority of Catholics who attend weekly Mass have voted Republican.

Evangelicals voted en masse for Huckabee, a former evangelical pastor in Iowa, providing a surprise victory over Romney, who outspent the former Arkansas governor eight-to-one in the caucus. Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said the result revealed that “conservative Christians remain a powerful force in American politics.”

Many evangelicals have also supported the other candidates precisely because they have been wooed through policies and personal stories of faith. McCain’s Christmas commercial included video footage of a cross being drawn in the dirt. If the religious right is dead, it seems odd that conservative politicians care so much about its support.

Perhaps the greatest indication of the continued relevancy of socially conservative voters is that many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, are also seeking their support, even if they go about it the wrong way. Clinton says she wants to reduce the number of abortions by contraception; pro-life voters don’t support the idea or her, but hers was a misbegotten attempt to find “middle ground.” Also, Democratic candidates have now made it a point to tell their own religious stories and the party regained control of Congress in 2006 in part by running pro-life candidates in the Midwest in the most closely contested races. If socially conservative and religious voters are politically irrelevant, why do so many candidates, including pro-abortion politicians like Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, take the time to reach out to them?

Pro-life activists have yet to unite behind a single Republican candidate. National Right to Life backed Thompson, while leading pro-life senator Brownback and Austin Ruse of C-FAM endorsed McCain. Both John Willke, president of the International Right to Life Federation, and Paul Weyrich, a founder of the Moral Majority in the 1970s, support Romney. Stephen Mosher, head of the Population Research Institute, and Douglas Scott, president of Life Decisions International, endorsed Huckaabee. No major pro-life leader or organization, save Robertson, backed Giuliani.

In November, NRLC executive director David O’Steen said their endorsement of Thompson would lead “pro-life people across the nation to coalesce” behind the former senator from Tennessee. That never materialized, but it might not be such a bad thing. The fact that pro-lifers find so many candidates suitable might speak to how safely pro-life the Republican party is. That doesn’t mean the battle for the soul of the party is done; it must be ongoing, with Congressional candidate nominations and convention policy fights. But if this primary season has demonstrated anything it is that the Democrats have surrendered themselves to pro-abortion advocates, while pro-lifers remain a dominant, if not controlling, force within the Republican party.