GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The movement to legally classify a fertilized egg a "person" -- and to make abortion, legally, murder -- suffered a deep setback last year when voters in conservative Mississippi rejected it as a step too far.
But the attendance of four Republican presidential candidates last night at the Personhood USA forum in a hotel auditorium here signaled the vitality of the most ambitious wing of the anti-abortion movement, as well as the discomfort pro-life activists feel for the party's likely nominee, Mitt Romney.
Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich all appeared in person for 20 minutes each; Ron Paul appeared on a screen, calling in from D.C. where he was voting on the latest debt ceiling increase.
The candidates answered soft questions on their abortion records from Personhood USA higher-ups and from pro-life activist Lila Rose, to frequent and loud applause from an audience that says its movement is "burgeoning."
Keith Mason, the president of Personhood USA, told BuzzFeed that the event last night was "historic. It's never happened before that a town hall meeting was so well-attended and that a town hall meeting focused specifically on life."
Mason downplayed the loss in Mississippi. "This is a movement," he said. "One skirmish, win or lose, is not going to make a difference in the whole battle. Mississippi was overall a success because we were able to raise awareness and we were able to raise a standard."
Nancy Stith, the executive director of Georgia Right to Life, said that the abortion issue comes even before the economy for voters like her. "Other things are important -- taxes, jobs -- but if you don't have the right to life, then all those other things aren't important to me. So they have to be right on that issue, and then I look at the other issues," she said.
One candidate who is not right on this issue, in the minds of personhood advocates: Mitt Romney, who has been roundly criticized by conservatives for his moderate stances on abortion as governor of Massachusetts. The event's moderators mentioned multiple times that Romney had been invited but didn't plan to attend. Later, Mason told BuzzFeed that Romney's absence "leaves question marks in a lot of folks' minds."
"It's pretty telling," said Stith.
"I think it reveals his lack of commitment to the life issue from his heart," said Karen Labarr, a board member of Georgia Right to Life.
Despite a perceived lack of support from the candidate most likely to run in the general election and a major loss in Mississippi, personhood advocates have high -- if vague -- hopes for the future of the movement.
Of personhood legislation, Stith said that "more and more states are considering it. It's gaining momentum."
"Our focus is grassroots citizens initiatives," said Mason. "We're building a movement. I think the candidates understand it and the polls show it -- that we might not have a majority in America that believes in personhood, but we're quickly moving in that direction."