In the debate at St. Anselm College just before the New Hampshire primary, Mary Katharine Ham, editor of the conservative website HotAir, asked Rubio to respond to Millennials’ strong support for same-sex marriage, but also at least some restrictions on abortion.
On same-sex marriage, Rubio was emphatic about his opposition, but also left room to “respect” those who may have a differing views in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision extending marriage rights for gay couples across the country.
“I don’t think believing in traditional marriage, as I do, makes you a bigot or a hater,” Rubio said. “It means that you believe that this institution that’s been around for millennia is an important cornerstone of our society. I respect people who believe differently, but I believe deeply that marriage should be between one man and one woman.”
On restricting abortion rights, Rubio was at first even-handed as well, saying the issue represents two rights in conflict, but he ultimately comes down as pro-life.
“To me, the issue of life is not a political issue; it’s a human rights issue,” Rubio said. “But it’s a difficult issue because it puts in conflict two competing rights. On the one hand is the right of a woman to choose what to do with her body, which is a real right, and on the other is the right of an unborn human child to live. They’re in conflict and as a policy maker, I must choose which one of these two sides takes precedence. I’ve chosen to error on the side of life.”
But unlike with marriage, Rubio invoked abortion as an issue in which he said he’s eager to challenge Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a general election.
“Here’s what I find outrageous: In five Democratic debates, the media has not asked them a single question on abortion,” Rubio said. “And on abortion, the Democrats are extremists. Why doesn’t the media ask Hillary Clinton why she believes that all abortion should be legal, even on the due date of that unborn child. Why don’t they ask Hillary Clinton why she believes that partial-birth abortion, which is a gruesome procedure that has been outlawed in this country, she thinks that is a fundamental right? They are the extremists when it comes to the issue of abortion, and I can’t wait to expose them in a general election.”
Rubio has said he opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest (although not explicitly during the debate), which Jeb Bush referenced in his subsequent response to the question, hinting that view would harm Rubio if he were in the GOP nominee.
“I’m pro-life, but I believe there should exceptions: Rape, incest and [when] the life of the mother is danger,” Bush said. “And so, that belief and my consistency on this makes me, I think, poised to be in the right place, the sweet spot for a Republican nominee. And others may have I different view, and I respect it, but I think we have to be cognizant of the fact that a lot of people are concerned about having a pro-life position without any exceptions.”
But Rubio was unapologetic in his views, saying although he supports an exception for the life of a mother he’ll stand by his pro-life views despite any difficultly in the general election.
“I just believe deeply that all human life is worthy of the protection of our laws,” Rubio said. “If I’m elected president, and there’s a bill passed that saves lives, but it has exceptions, I’ll sign it. But I do believe deeply that all human life is worthy of the protection of our laws. I’ve already said, for me, the issue of life is not a political issue, and I want to frank, I would rather lose an election, then be wrong on the issue of life.”
The more fiery response from Rubio on abortion as opposed to marriage is consistent with polling. According to Gallup, in 2015 there was 23 percent increase in support for gay and lesbian relations since 2001, but only a 3 percent uptick in support on abortion.