Danville - US vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan clashed with incumbent Joe Biden on abortion on Thursday but softened his own stance on the issue to match that of party flag-bearer Mitt Romney.
Ryan has been on record opposing abortion in all circumstances, but in his televised election debate with Biden he said that a Romney administration would support exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
The fiery debate - staged less than a month before polling day - took a more personal turn when Ryan and Biden, both Catholics, were asked to describe their positions on an issue that starkly divides American voters.
"I believe life begins at conception," Ryan said, as he recounted going to the hospital 10 years ago with his pregnant wife for a seven-week ultrasound to see the beating heart of "our little baby."
"Now I understand this is a difficult issue, and I respect people who don't agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother."
Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin, has co-sponsored several pieces of anti-abortion legislation, including some that allowed no exceptions for rape or incest and one that controversially tried to redefine the crime of rape.
Romney's own position on abortion has shifted over the years as he has tried to find a home in a Republican Party with an increasingly socially conservative base, but he is campaigning as a "pro-life" candidate.
Biden pounced on Ryan's comments. "I guess he accepts governor Romney's position now," he said, sensing a contradiction in Ryan's words.
Threat to life
"In the past ... he's argued that in the case of rape or incest, it was still - it would be a crime to engage in having an abortion," the vice president said. "I fundamentally disagree with my friend."
Biden said that, as a practicing Catholic, "I accept my church's position on abortion", but added that he would refuse to impose its rules on those of other faiths or beliefs.
"Unlike my friend here, the congressman, I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people, women, they can't control their body."
Romney now has a pro-life position, but when he served as governor of liberal Massachusetts he supported a pro-choice agenda.
His current presidential platform supports overturning the 1973 Supreme Court decision that upheld a woman's right to an abortion, and letting states decide on the legality of the practice.
But Romney has stressed he would not oppose abortion in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother.
Romney caused a stir Tuesday when he appeared to moderate his position, telling the Des Moines Register newspaper "there's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda."
Those remarks were interpreted as a tack to the political center, after he enjoyed a dramatic bump in the polls this past week following his strong performance in his debate against President Barack Obama on 3 October.
A day later, however, Romney said: "I'm a pro-life candidate and I'll be a pro-life president."