WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, moving toward the middle in a Senate race with national stakes, said Tuesday he abandoned his longtime support for measures giving legal rights to fertilized human eggs because it is a "settled issue" at home in Colorado.
"The people of Colorado have spoken," Gardner said in a brief, hurried interview in the Capitol, referring to statewide votes in 2008 and 2010 in which voters in the state rejected so-called personhood ballot questions.
Gardner's switch comes as Republicans nationally seek to win control of the Senate in this fall's elections. They hope to avoid a repeat of defeats in 2010 and 2012 in Colorado and elsewhere when their candidates lost apparently winnable races because they appeared too extreme on abortion and other issues for mainstream, moderate voters.
Gardner, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in the November election, did not say why he waited until he was a candidate for statewide office to abandon a long-held position on a controversial abortion-related question.
"The past four years as I've learned more about it, I've come to the conclusion it can ban common forms of contraception," he said of the personhood proposal. "We ought to be looking for ways to work together instead of holding to divisive" positions, he added.
Gardner co-sponsored a bill in Congress as recently as last year to give personhood status to fertilized eggs.
Jennifer Mason of Personhood USA, which sponsored the personhood initiatives, expressed dismay at his shift. "He was elected to his position by pro-personhood, pro-life voters. It's pretty shocking," she said.
Gardner made his comments as a second Colorado Republican in Congress, Rep. Mike Coffman, also jettisoned his support for personhood proposals.
Coffman, who faces a difficult re-election challenge this fall, supported the measures in Colorado in 2008 and 2010. He did not take a position in 2012, when supporters failed in their third attempt to qualify the initiative for a statewide vote.
It was unclear how broadly based anti-abortion groups in Colorado and nationally would react, and how the about-faces executed by the two men would be received by voters on both sides of the perennially controversial issue.
Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said the group had no position on personhood proposals that she was aware of. She said the organization is concentrating its efforts on attempts to ban abortions after 20 weeks of fetal gestation.
One Republican consultant in Colorado, Katy Atkinson, said: "What Democrats have done on social issues is define Republicans as so far outside the mainstream that they're scary. ... It worked for Barack Obama. And they're throwing it up against Cory Gardner."
Gardner's office did not return a call seeking information on his position on other issues that the voters of his state have settled at the polls, a basis that he cited in explaining his shift on the personhood amendment. In one recent case, state voters in 2012 approved recreational marijuana use for adults.
Both Gardner and Coffman drew criticism from Democrats for their changes, as well as from pro-abortion rights groups that have long opposed them.
Karen Middleton, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, said Gardner's "2014 flip-flop doesn't change the fact that he doesn't believe women have the right to make their own private decisions about their health care, without government interference.
"Colorado women still can't trust Cory Gardner," she said.
Her comments reflected an effort by Udall and his Democratic allies to depict Gardner as a fringe candidate in the mold of Ken Buck, a county prosecutor who was the Republican candidate in the state's 2010 Senate race. Buck was defeated after struggling to explain his decision not to prosecute an alleged rape case, and after telling the woman who said she had been attacked that a jury would consider her allegations "buyer's remorse." Buck also supported personhood legislation.
Exit polls in the 2010 Senate race indicated that Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet drew 56 percent of the women's vote, compared with 40 percent for Buck.
Gardner, a second-term member of the House, seemed intent on running for re-election until a few weeks ago, when party officials successfully prevailed on him to run for the Senate in place of Buck.
"Cory is more disciplined than I am, let's be honest," Buck said at the time. He is now seeking Gardner's congressional seat in the eastern part of the state.
The personhood measures would effectively outlaw abortions and, critics say, many forms of contraception. They have been overwhelmingly rejected at the polls in Colorado -- the last one failed 70-30 -- and have been used by Democrats to paint Republicans as extremists on social issues.
No Republican has won a top-of-the-ticket race in Colorado since 2004, partly because of their difficulty winning moderate suburban women who are the deciding voters in the evenly split state.
Associated Press writer Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.
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