IOWA CITY, June 2 — Even in a room of sixth graders sitting cross-legged on the floor, usually the safest of venues for political candidates, the question emerged from one sweet face: What is your position on abortion?
Mike Blouin, who is running for governor, has been asked that a lot lately, though abortion bans are more typically the purview of presidents who might pick United States Supreme Court nominees or senators who might confirm them. The Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to abortion 33 years ago in Roe v. Wade.
But with South Dakota this year having passed the country's most restrictive state abortion law in decades and a sense among some advocates on both sides of the abortion debate that a changed Supreme Court could one day leave the abortion question in the hands of the states, tough questions about abortion rights are being raised in local races across the country.
Questions about ways to regulate or restrict abortion have long been issues in state races. But in campaigns for governor and the Legislature here in Iowa and in numerous other states, many candidates are not only being asked about limits on abortion, but a far broader, starker question: to outlaw or not to outlaw?
"The State of South Dakota made it an issue," Mr. Blouin said in an interview in the teachers' lounge at Robert Lucas Elementary School after he had met the sixth graders. He is one of four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination on Tuesday to succeed Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat who has decided not to seek re-election after two terms.
A former congressman who in the 1970's pushed for a federal ban on abortion, Mr. Blouin would have a simpler path if the questions went away. He said that he had "transitioned on this issue" over the years; that although he remained "very strongly anchored as a person who believes in life," he would oppose a ban if passed by lawmakers. "I'd veto it in a heartbeat," he said.
One of Mr. Blouin's chief rivals, Chet Culver, the secretary of state, has made his own support for abortion rights a central issue of his campaign, raising doubts about Mr. Blouin's stance.
After shaking hands at the Hamburg Inn restaurant here this week, Mr. Culver trumpeted his endorsement by Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa's Political Action Committee, the organization's first endorsement in a governor's race.
"A woman's right to choose is under assault, and people in this state are absolutely worried," Mr. Culver said. "This has become a very important issue in this state and in state races around the country — and it should be."
In Florida, the Democratic and Republican hopefuls for governor have staked out sides over a state ban. On the Republican side, Charlie Crist has taken criticism from some for seeming to shift on just how many exceptions he thinks a ban should include — just to save a woman's life or also when rape or incest is involved.
In Arkansas, candidates in one Republican State Senate primary disagreed only about when a state ban should come: before or after Roe v. Wade is overturned. In Ohio, both Republican hopefuls for governor — including J. Kenneth Blackwell, the secretary of state and now the party's nominee — told newspapers they would sign an abortion ban like South Dakota's if the State Legislature were to pass such a bill.
In many state races, it remains uncertain who will benefit from the sudden focus on abortion bans — candidates who oppose abortion rights or those who favor them. Sometimes the political calculation gets complicated. While support for bans has grown, especially in some Southern states, even those who oppose abortion rights do not agree that direct challenges to Roe v. Wade are the best approach. Some argue that gradual efforts to limit abortion are more likely to win support.
"I think that, in the short term, this issue can be less helpful to pro-life candidates," said Daniel McConchie, vice president of Americans United for Life, a group that opposes abortion rights. "The questions that are being asked are hypothetical, things governors mostly won't control. My concern is that the average person on the ground will misinterpret the questions to be something more real than they really are right now."