When it comes to social issues, the difference is in the details

WASHINGTON–The most volatile social questions of the day usually are couched in absolute terms: Are you for or against abortion? Gun control? Gay rights? And viewed in that broad context, there isn’t much difference between Linda McMahon and Richard Blumenthal.

But the real battles over these issues often play out at the margins, over small legislative questions that still carry great political weight. And the differences there are harder to discern–in large part because McMahon, as she flirts with the Tea Party and quietly courts Connecticut’s social conservatives, does not care to talk about them.

Over the course of more than a week, McMahon’s campaign declined to make the former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO available to discuss abortion and other social questions.

Her website is relatively terse on these subjects. On abortion, for example, McMahon’s campaign describes her as pro-choice, but in favor of a ban on partial-birth abortion and parental notification laws.

But it leaves out key details, such as whether she would support exceptions for cases of rape and incest in any legislation requiring a minor to get parental permission before terminating a pregnancy.

Her Democratic opponent, Richard Blumenthal, whose been known to hedge on other questions, was unequivocal about this one. “I have a record over three decades of standing strong for choice,” Blumenthal said in an interview.

“It’s one of the reasons my wife has been so supportive of my work in politics,” he added, “because she thinks I’ve been able to make a difference on this.”

Among other efforts, Blumenthal, a one-time law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, successfully sued to prevent protesters from blocking access to abortion clinics. And he worked to ensure that emergency contraception, such as the Plan B pill, is available at pharmacies in Connecticut.

Blumenthal said he generally opposes parental notification laws because “there are too many cases of abuse and incest that leads to those issues.”

On partial birth abortion, he said he favors a ban if it includes exceptions for when the mother’s health or her life is at risk. Discussions about those factors, he added, should be between a patient and her doctor.

McMahon’s campaign has said she supports an exception only in cases where the life of the mother is at risk, without elaborating.

On stem cell research, Blumenthal said he supports repealing the current ban on federal funding for research in which human embryos are destroyed. He said he would actively seek to blunt the impact of a recent court decision prohibiting federally-funded embryonic stem cell research.

In the wake of that ruling, Blumenthal quickly sought to highlight his position at an event with scientific researchers, while McMahon’s campaign didn’t offer any reaction until asked. Even then, her spokesman, Ed Patru, said she supports stem cell research, but he couldn’t say whether she would impose any conditions.

On gun control, McMahon has been similarly circumspect. Her position is summed on her website up in one sentence: “America has a long history of gun ownership, and I fully support 2nd Amendment rights.”

Blumenthal, when asked about gun control, also articulated support for the 2nd Amendment. But he said he would likely support some gun control measures, such as a ban on certain types of assault weapons, and would generally weigh such proposals through a prism of “public safety and security.”

On gay rights, both candidates favor repealing the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy banning homosexuals from serving openly in the military. Blumenthal also supports overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. DOMA also says states can decline to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Blumenthal said in the interview that he sees gay marriage as a state issue and that he supports Connecticut’s law permitting such unions.

McMahon has not been entirely clear on DOMA. When asked about the law in an interview in March, she said, “I do think it’s a state’s right issue.” When pressed, she added, “I don’t think there should be a federal law.” But Patru now says she doesn’t support repealing the law.

Even if McMahon’s been relatively mum in public about political wedge issues like abortion, she hasn’t been so reticent in private. More than a year ago, she dispatched campaign aides to speak with Peter Wolfgang, head of the Family Institute of Connecticut, which advocates against abortion, gay marriage, and other issues.

“They explained what her positions were on abortion, and said they wanted to have a conversation,” Wolfgang recalled of that initial chat, which led to several follow-up discussions, including a few with McMahon herself.

He said the discussions have focused on what kind of relationship “a potential Senator McMahon would have with the social conservative moment in Connecticut.”

Wolfgang said that while her pro-choice position runs counter to the Institute’s principals, the fact that she has offered a few qualifiers represents serious progress.

“No one is looking at Linda McMahon and saying ‘This is the next Rick Santorum’,” he said, referring to the former Pennsylvania senator and anti-abortion crusader. “But we are thinking this is much better than Nancy Johnson. This is much better than Jodi Rell,” he said, referring respectively to former Republican 5th District congresswoman and current GOP governor.

In the past, Republican candidates running for statewide or federal office in Connecticut “are as hard-line about abortion rights as Democrats,” he said.

Similarly, Jillian Gilchrest, executive director NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, said McMahon is a new breed of Republican in Connecticut with her caveats on abortion. From her perspective, McMahon’s reluctance to answer more detailed questions raises concerns about a host of lower-profile reproductive-rights issues, such as whether health insurance plans should be required to cover contraceptives or whether the new high-risk pools set up under health care reform should cover abortion.

“I don’t think she’d side with us” on such questions, but it’s not clear, said Gilchrest.

Political observers say it’s no surprise that McMahon hasn’t sought to publicly elaborate on such issues.

McMahon’s split-the-difference position on abortion allows her to “have it both ways,” appealing to both social liberals and some conservatives, said Howard Reiter, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Connecticut. And it fits “her desire not to offend anyone too much but to take a middling position.”

Perhaps more importantly, though, Reiter noted that in this election, the economy has eclipsed everything else, so candidates don’t gain much by drawing attention to volatile social questions.

“When both candidates are looking for the elusive moderate voter, there are a lot of risks in those issues,” Reiter said.