Former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina has tried to carve a more moderate path on the contentious issue of abortion than many of her rivals for the Republican nomination for president.
But on Friday, speaking to an audience of conservative Christians in Iowa, Ms. Haley was challenged on whether she would have signed a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy had it been passed by the Legislature when she served as governor of South Carolina.
“Yes, whatever the people decide,” Ms. Haley replied, suggesting that she believed restrictions on abortion should be left to the states. “This was put in the states — that’s where it should be. Everyone can give their voice to it.”
Ms. Haley — like the other two leading candidates, former President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — has tried to avoid being pinned down on supporting a national abortion ban with a specific gestational limit. Democrats scored victories in the midterms last year and in state elections this month with help from voters who were motivated by protecting abortion rights — and who could again be mobilized in a presidential election. Ms. Haley has characterized her position as “unapologetically pro-life” while she has also urged Republicans to accept that they do not have enough votes to pass an abortion ban in Congress and called on them to stop “demonizing this issue.”
Her remarks in Iowa on Friday were not a drastic departure from her previous stance, but her gesture of support for a ban at six weeks after conception, when many women don’t yet know they are pregnant, could pose a political risk.
Ms. Haley is performing well in New Hampshire, the second state to vote in the Republican primary, where voters tend to be more supportive of abortion rights. (The state currently bans abortions after 24 weeks.) And wealthy G.O.P. donors, who have paid more attention to Ms. Haley after her strong debate performances, are also more moderate on abortion.
Democrats were quick to pounce on the comments, a sign that they see Ms. Haley, who is polling well against President Biden, as a threat. Even as Ms. Haley was still addressing the crowd at a hotel ballroom in Des Moines, where was joined onstage by Mr. DeSantis and the entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, the Biden campaign posted a video of Ms. Haley on X, the social media network formerly known as Twitter. The video contained only one word of her answer.
“Q: Would you sign a 6-week abortion ban if you were governor?” the post said. “Haley: Yes”
In a statement, Ammar Moussa, a Biden campaign spokesman, said, “Nikki Haley is no moderate — she’s an anti-abortion MAGA extremist who wants to rip away women’s freedoms just like she did when she was South Carolina governor.”
While serving as governor in 2016, Ms. Haley signed a ban on the procedure at 20 weeks in the state.
At the most recent Republican debate, in Miami this month, Ms. Haley said that as president, she would sign an abortion ban of any length passed by Congress. But she also echoed her belief that Republicans would not find enough votes to do so. Instead, she said Americans should “find consensus” where possible on issues such as banning abortions later in pregnancy, promoting adoption and access to contraception and not criminally charging patients who get abortions.
“Stop the judgment,” she said. “We don’t need to divide America over this issue anymore.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump — with an eye toward the general election — has criticized six-week bans, commonly called “heartbeat” bills in conservative circles, as “too harsh.” The former president, however, has enormous good will from the anti-abortion movement because he reshaped the Supreme Court, paving the way for it to overturn Roe v. Wade.
And while Mr. DeSantis signed a six-week ban this year as governor of Florida, he managed for much of the year to avoid expressing support for a national abortion ban. That changed at the second Republican debate, in September, when Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who has since dropped out of the race, maneuvered Mr. DeSantis into saying unequivocally that he would sign a 15-week ban as president.