DENVER (AP) – Republican Rep. Cory Gardner’s reversal on granting legal rights of personhood to a fertilized egg is an acknowledgment of the clout of Colorado’s female voters who increasingly have backed Democrats in major races for a decade, a streak the GOP candidate hopes to end in his challenge to Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.

Gardner, once a proponent of “personhood” measures, says he’s changed his mind and accepts the argument of critics that such measures not only ban abortion but prohibit some forms of contraception. The congressman and his defenders say he’s merely being open-minded. They compare his shift to Udall abandoning his opposition to gay marriage in 2011.

Democrats say Gardner’s election-year conversion is simply political expediency.

“Once again, Congressman Gardner is trying to run from his long record of turning his back on Colorado women,” Udall’s campaign said in a statement Monday.

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.”

The criticism from Democrats and women’s groups reflects their effort to cast Gardner as a fringe candidate, an approach that proved effective in the 2010 Senate election. Republican candidate Ken Buck struggled to explain his decision not to prosecute a case in which a woman alleged she had been raped and he told the victim a jury would consider her charges “buyer’s remorse.” Buck also supported “personhood” legislation.

Democrat Michael Bennet prevailed in a race the GOP had figured it could win, with a decisive 16-percentage point edge with female voters.

Democrats in Colorado have been aggressive about criticizing Republicans on women’s issues. That has helped them regularly win over moderate suburban women who are usually the key to victory in a state split evenly between registered Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Women helped President Barack Obama win Colorado in 2008 and 2012 after Republicans had the edge in presidential elections. They also helped Udall win in 2008.

“What Democrats have done on social issues is define Republicans as so far outside the mainstream that they’re scary,” said Katy Atkinson, a GOP consultant in Denver. “It worked for Bennet. It worked for Barack Obama. And they’re throwing it up against Cory Gardner.”

Atkinson contended that Gardner, whom she said is a charismatic and sunny politician, will be harder to demonize than previous Colorado GOP candidates.

No Republican has won a top-of-the-ticket election in Colorado since 2004. Gardner represents the party’s best shot at breaking that streak. His entry into the Senate race electrified his party.

Democrats predict that Gardner’s conservative stand on social issues will make him less appealing to the state’s electorate.

Jill Hanauer, a Democratic strategist in Denver, said Gardner’s reversal was no surprise.

“He’s smart enough to know he’s on the wrong side of one of the most important issues facing women and their families,” she said.

A ballot measure to grant fertilized eggs the same legal rights as human beings has been repeatedly rejected in Colorado, most recently by a 70-30 percent margin in 2010. Gardner, like most Republicans who must navigate a primary to win the GOP nomination here, had embraced it in prior statehouse and congressional campaigns, saying he even handed out petitions for it at his church. During the past two years in Congress, Gardner co-sponsored similar legislation in Congress, the “Life Begins at Conception Act.”

But in an interview published Friday evening with The Denver Post, Gardner said he’s changed his mind on the issue.

“The fact that it restricts contraception, it was not the right position,” Gardner told the Post. “I’ve learned to listen. I don’t get everything right the first time.”

Gardner’s campaign said he was not immediately available for comment Monday. The congressman still opposes abortion rights. His change came less than a week after his last major opponent in the GOP primary dropped out, making Gardner the prohibitive favorite to win his party’s nomination.

Supporters of the personhood initiative in Colorado said they are now trying to come up with an alternative candidate to back in the primary, saying Gardner has betrayed his base. “He was elected to his position by pro-personhood and prolife voters,” Jennifer Mason of Personhood USA said.

-By NICHOLAS RICCARDI, Associated Press

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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