Did Rand Paul speak too honestly about abortion?

In a panel discussion with David Axelrod at the University of Chicago, the junior senator from Kentucky stressed that there could be a "middle ground" between virtually no restrictions on abortion and a total ban.

"The country is in the middle," Paul said, "[and] we're not changing any of the laws until the country is persuaded otherwise." The colorfully named "MoFo" politics site offered the following paraphrase of the Tea Party senator's comments: "Relax, I'm not going to ban abortion."

Paul's assessment of public opinion on abortion is indisputably accurate. But it's important to take his comment in this historical and political context: Conservatives who oppose abortion — and I am one — have long been divided between pursuing incremental change and pushing for a more sweeping overhaul of the country's culture and law.

The conservative movement against abortion has more legislative victories to show for its 1990s shift toward advocating partial-birth abortion bans and parental notification laws than its Reagan-era emphasis on a human life amendment.

Not entirely coincidentally, abortion has also declined since this tactical change. The total number of abortions reported in the United States has fallen from its 1992 peak of 1.6 million to about 1.1 million in 2011. That year, the abortion rate among American women hit its lowest level in three decades.

To be sure, contraception played a role in this decline. But let's not count out the effect of abortion restrictions and generally rising opposition to abortion among the American public.

So back to Rand Paul: If all the senator was doing was putting himself in the incrementalist camp, advising conservative opponents of abortion to focus on the popular and politically attainable first, most abortion opponents would probably forgive him.

But then Paul also said this:

"My personal religious belief is that life begins at the very beginning," Paul said, before adding that the abortion debate was polarized between believers in "all life and no abortion, or all abortion and no life."

To many conservatives, reducing the idea that life begins at conception to a "personal religious belief" — more or less how Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry characterized it in a 2004 presidential debate — cedes the moral and scientific high ground.

"Who the hell cares what Paul's personal religious beliefs are about when life begins?" asked The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway. "Why would that be a particularly religious belief in any case?" In this telling, life beginning at conception requires fewer mystical or theological presuppositions than many of the alternatives.

Now, the conventional wisdom is that Paul's relatively libertarian foreign-policy views are the biggest threat to him in the 2016 GOP primaries. That may indeed be what motivates spending on a barrage of anti-Paul ads in the early states, and perhaps beyond. But losing the social conservative vote in Iowa and South Carolina — either to someone like Ted Cruz or a pure Christian right candidate — is actually Paul's most immediate obstacle.

Pat Buchanan's opposition to the Persian Gulf War, far more popular than any intervention Paul has opposed, didn't keep him from winning the social-conservative vote in 1996. Iowa may have been Ron Paul's best state among evangelicals in 2012.

But many well-funded conservative candidates have been upended by poorer, less organized candidates to their right on social issues: Pat Robertson over Jack Kemp in 1988; Buchanan over Phil Gramm in 1996; Mike Huckabee over Mitt Romney (if he counts) and Fred Thompson in 2008; Rick Santorum over Rick Perry in 2012.

Each has then gone on to be crushed by the establishment candidate.

Paul is ambitious. Many candidates have tried to seek the Republican nomination by claiming the mantle of the truest conservative. Others — think John Anderson in 1980, John McCain in 2000, and Jon Huntsman in 2012 — have tried to reposition themselves, either rhetorically or substantively, to attract non-traditional GOP voters.

Rand Paul is trying to do both at the same time.

Like his father, Rand Paul opposes abortion. Unlike his father — a reluctant vote for the federal partial-birth abortion ban — he has no qualms about voting for or sponsoring restrictions at the federal level.

Perhaps Paul should borrow a line from Steve Forbes, who tried to clarify his nuanced abortion position in his second presidential campaign. "[W]here there is consensus on limiting abortions, let us codify," Forbes said. "From there, let us persuade."

That's probably all Paul was trying to say, but he'll have to be more persuasive. In 2000, after all, Forbes was the rare movement conservative to lose the Christian right vote to the establishment candidate — a confident evangelical named George W. Bush.