LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - As one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas received a perfect score from abortion opponents for his votes last year. Abortion rights supporters gave him a "0."
Now that he's running for governor, Ross is portraying himself as a defender of abortion rights and criticizing state legislators who passed an abortion ban nearly identical to one he supported in Washington - and reminding voters ahead of a heated primary that he's in the race as a Democrat.
"He's got to send some important signals to the party base that he's one of them," said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College who has been active with the Democratic Party.
While a member of Congress last year, Ross was one of 17 Democrats who backed a bill that would have halted most abortions in Washington, D.C., after 20 weeks of pregnancy, even those resulting from rape or incest. Announcing his run for governor this month, Ross criticized Arkansas legislators for adopting a nearly identical 20-week ban, one that included exemptions for rape and incest that the D.C. ban didn't.
Ross said Gov. Mike Beebe was right to veto that bill and another one stopping most abortions in the 12th week of pregnancy and beyond. The bills became law on two overrides.
"These were clearly nothing more than attacks on women," Ross said after announcing. "These were bills to give partisan legislators ammunition to use in their next campaign that in litigation is going to cost the state tens of millions of dollars. That's tens of millions of dollars they could be spending on education and economic development."
Ross' change was not a surprise to the head of the Arkansas Right to Life group. Two terms ago, Ross received only a 50 percent rating from National Right to Life and the term before that, he had a "0."
"He wasn't somebody we could always count on," said Rose Mimms, executive director of Arkansas Right to Life. "I had hoped that maybe he had a change of heart, but apparently he hasn't."
Douglas Johnson, the legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, is more direct, calling the ex-congressman "hypocritical and duplicitous" for supporting a ban in Congress but not at the state level.
Ross says he's neither. Circumstances are different, he says, as are the roles of a governor and a member of the U.S. House.
"I was representing the views of my district, which is what a congressman does," Ross told The Associated Press. "What a governor does is a lot different. A governor is the leader of the state and is making decisions based on his values, his morals, his life experiences and his heart."
Ross' rival for the Democratic nomination, former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, has said the ex-congressman is trying to mislead voters on his past anti-abortion votes.
During Ross' final term in office, the National Right to Life Committee gave him a 100 percent rating after his vote on the 20-week ban, another vote to prohibit federal funding for teaching health centers to train doctors on how to perform abortions and his backing for a measure that would have made it a federal crime to perform or force a woman to undergo an abortion based on the sex of a fetus.
Ross also supported measures in 2011 aimed at cutting off federal funding to Planned Parenthood, but had voted against a similar effort when it came up in 2009. A bill that would have barred Arkansas from awarding grants to entities that perform abortions or refer women to abortion providers cleared the state Senate this year, but failed before a House committee.
Ross said he supports maintaining public funding for Planned Parenthood and would have opposed the de-funding effort in the state Legislature.
"I fully support non-abortion related funding for Planned Parenthood so they can do what they do 97, 98 percent of the time, which is address women's health issues," he said.
Ross denies that he's had a change of heart on abortion issues and said he doubts his position pleases either side of the debate.
"Anyone who is a single issue voter on either side of this issue probably would not agree with where I am but I can tell you my view is the majority view of the people of this state," Ross said. "That is we're personally opposed to abortion, we're against state- and federal-funded abortions and we believe from a public policy standpoint that abortion should be safe, legal and rare."
Ross' shift comes as he's seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in a state where Republicans have made dramatic gains over the past two election cycles. Barth said Ross is given some political cover on the abortion shift by linking his stance to Beebe's vetoes of the 12-week and 20-week bans. Beebe, a Democrat who has remained popular in the state despite the Republican surge, cited legal concerns about both prohibitions in rejecting them.
NARAL Pro-Choice America gave Ross a "0'' rating for his last year in office and a 10 percent score the year before. Since 2009, Ross voted with the group on 2 of 14 bills it used to rate lawmakers.
"We're more than happy to welcome converts who understand that women's rights are about more than politics, and that votes like these affect women's lives and their futures," said Tarek Rizk, the group's director of communications. "If Rep. Ross has had a change of heart on these issues, we and the women of Arkansas would be thrilled to see his words translate to action."
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