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2016 GOP field walks fine line in abortion fight

Republican presidential candidates are firing up social conservatives over Planned Parenthood. But will they get burned?

ATLANTA -- Social issues took center stage at a gathering of conservatives here on Friday as Republican presidential candidates looked to channel a firestorm of outrage against Planned Parenthood without getting burned. RedState, a conservative news website, hosted the event.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is not a popular figure among RedState’s activist crowd, earned applause for an extended riff in which he said he was “disgusted” by footage released by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress featuring Planned Parenthood officials discussing reimbursement for fetal remains used in medical research.

RELATED: GOP candidates: Ban abortion, no exceptions

Christie challenged Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has defended the group from ongoing GOP efforts to defund it, to answer whether she supported “killing children in the womb, in a particular way, in order to maximize the value of their body parts for sale on the open market for profit.”

Planned Parenthood has denied accusations lobbed by Christie and other anti-abortion critics that the organization illegally profits from the transfer of fetal tissue remains, which is allowed with patients’ consent.

Social conservatives see the Planned Parenthood story as their best opportunity in years to go on offense, and the pressure is on the candidates to tackle the issue hard. RedState editor-in-chief Erick Erickson tweeted ahead of the event that he planned to press candidates to join him in demanding a government shutdown unless President Obama and Democrats in Congress agreed to zero out federal dollars to the group. Friday’s proceedings opened with a panel on the Planned Parenthood fight, which Erickson told the audience was “the elephant in the room” heading into the gathering.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) drew cheers after he told the crowd a government shutdown would be Obama’s fault for insisting on maintaining the group’s funding. 

“This is offensive stuff, and there’s more outrage about a dead lion than there is about dead babies,” Rubio said of the videos.

Some social conservatives complain that their candidates, and especially establishment Republicans, are unwilling to fight on abortion even as GOP state legislators have passed a raft of new state restrictions in recent years. Polls show the public is still divided over abortion – especially after the first trimester – and, unlike gay marriage, there is not a wide generation gap that would obviously alienate younger voters.

“Those who say, ‘I’m a conservative, but not a social conservative,’ they don’t understand what makes America strong,” former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, president of the influential conservative Heritage Institute, said in a speech.

The trouble is that the longer the topic is in the news, the higher the odds that a Republican candidate talks about it in a way that damages the party or gets pinned down on less popular aspects of their abortion position.

Both of these problems are starting to creep into the presidential race.

RELATED: Texas prosecutor opens criminal probe into Planned Parenthood

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is set to address the RedState Gathering on Saturday, stumbled badly last week by telling a crowd he was “not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.” Bush later said he misspoke, but the move drew attacks not only from Clinton, but also from Republican rivals who accused him of undermining the movement’s focus on the Planned Parenthood videos. 

Christie threw an apparent elbow at Bush on Friday, complaining that unnamed presidential candidates “talked about women’s health care in a way that was ambiguous, and kind of allowed [Clinton] to be able to jump all over it.”

Fiorina, who has called for a shutdown fight over Planned Parenthood, went after Bush indirectly in a debate Thursday for lower-polling presidential candidates and directly in the press afterward.

"I think it's going to become an ad in a Democrat campaign,” she told Bloomberg. “Hillary Clinton jumped all over it for a reason, because she saw an opportunity … and it is foolish to say that women's health isn't a priority.”

The ongoing conversation around abortion also helped pin down Rubio’s opposition on exceptions for rape and incest in abortion bans after he was asked about it in Thursday’s prime time debate, an issue that has caused problems for Republican candidates in recent years – even in some red state elections. 

"I think both of those instances are horrifying and, fortunately, they are extremely rare. It happens. And anytime it happens, it's horrifying and it's a tragedy," Rubio told CNN on Friday. "But I personally and honestly and deeply believe that all human life is worthy of protection, irrespective of the circumstances in which that human life was created. I personally believe that you do not correct one tragedy with a second tragedy."

The ongoing debate also puts pressure on the more socially conservative candidates to out-do their rivals with escalating positions and demands or risk fading into the background. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, for example, dismissed the Planned Parenthood fight as kid stuff in the debate, instead indicating he would ignore the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision and declare that a “baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.”

RELATED: Jeb Bush regroups after stumbling on 'women's health issues'

At the RedState Gathering on Friday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal repeated a new threat to sic the IRS and Justice Department on Planned Parenthood.

“Not only am I going to send the Department of Justice and the IRS, I will send OSHA, EPA and every federal agency I can,” he said.

It’s against the law for the White House to order an IRS audit or investigation against any group, and conservatives have long accused Obama of “politicizing” various agencies by undermining their independence. Jindal softened his rhetoric slightly when asked by msnbc about these legal obstacles, saying he would merely be “bringing to the IRS's attention” his concerns about the group as president.

In a few short weeks, however, the Planned Parenthood fight has escalated from a bill to defund the group, to threats to shut down the government, to threats to use the IRS against it, to threats to grant embryos legal personhood by executive fiat. With 17 Republican candidates jostling for position, it’s not difficult to imagine the conversation dragging the field to the right in ways that could be harmful in the general election.