Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL's Ohio affiliate, said debate over the heartbeat bill raised voter awareness of abortion-related issues.
"This is really on a lot of Ohioans' minds," she said. "They want to know where the candidates stand."
The issue also is figuring in Ohio's Senate race, with Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown, a firm supporter of legal access to abortion, and Republican challenger Josh Mandel, an advocate of outlawing it.
In Virginia, there was a surge of protests earlier this year when the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill requiring women to undergo pre-abortion sonograms. Initially, it mandated a vaginally invasive procedure, drawing charges from female Democratic legislators that it amounted to "state mandated rape."
The provision was removed at Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's urging after the bill was mocked on national TV comedy shows. But the controversy had staying power — a Democratic legislative candidate in North Carolina has run a TV ad in which she brandishes a transvaginal wand in an effort to capitalize on the anti-abortion views of her GOP opponent.
Abortion also has been a prominent issue in Missouri's Senate race since Republican candidate Todd Akin — a foe of abortion — remarked in August that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in instances of "legitimate rape." He later called the comment a mistake, but Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill has aired anti-Akin ads featuring testimonials from women who said they were raped, including one who describes herself as a "pro-life" Republican.
Just this week, abortion flared as an issue in an Illinois congressional race pitting Republican incumbent Joe Walsh against Democrat Tammy Duckworth. Walsh asserted Thursday that abortions are never necessary to save the life of a woman because of scientific advances, and said "health of the mother has become a tool for abortions any time under any reason."
Medical experts responded quickly, saying abortions are sometimes necessary to save a mother's life. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued what it called an "unequivocal" message to politicians: "Get out of our exam rooms."
Rozell, the George Mason professor, said the abortion debate could play a crucial role in the election even as the economy remains the paramount concern.
"The social issues do matter to a significant portion of voters, especially certain swing voters who might see a candidate's position on abortion as a marker," Rozell said. "Can they trust this candidate to govern responsibly, or is he beholden to an extreme element in his political party?"
He said Romney faces a tricky balancing act as he tries to woo middle-of-the road women without antagonizing religious conservatives who already are wary because Romney supported abortion rights in the past.
Last week, Romney told The Des Moines Register's editorial board that there wasn't any abortion-related legislation he planned to pursue as president. A spokeswoman quickly clarified his remark, and Romney told reporters: "I'll be a pro-life president."
This week, Romney's campaign released a TV ad suggesting the candidate believes abortion "should be an option" in certain cases.
In the ad, a woman says she'd heard Romney's position on abortion and birth control "seemed a bit extreme." She says she'd learned Romney doesn't oppose contraception and believes abortion should be available in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is at stake.
Dawn Laguens of Planned Parenthood said the ad was "designed to deceive women."
"The Romney team knows that Mitt Romney's real agenda for women's health is deeply unpopular — ending safe and legal abortion, ending Planned Parenthood's preventive care that millions of people rely on," she said.
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