WASHINGTON — When the Democrats gather next week in Charlotte, N.C., they’ll be talking about an issue that wasn’t supposed to be on the front burner this year: abortion.

Speakers at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., will include Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law School student who made a name for herself advocating free contraceptives; Nancy Keenan, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s president; and Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s president.

Democrats appear determined to make what they call a “war on women” — which they say includes the GOP’s plank promoting the right to life — a focal point of their convention. So pronounced is the emphasis on abortion and social issues that commentator Mary Katharine Hamm predicted that the event will turn into a “social-issues palooza.”

“You could see that the other side wanted to make this an issue many months ago, when they began ginning it up,” said Austin Ruse, president of C-Fam (Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute). “The Susan G. Komen Foundation vs. Planned Parenthood fight was part of this effort, and it was given a boost by Todd Akin.”

Akin is the Republican senatorial candidate in Missouri who set off a firestorm of indignation when he said in an interview that the female body can prevent pregnancy in cases of rape.

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, which raises money for breast-cancer research and awareness, was one of the most revered organizations in the country before it tangled with Planned Parenthood.

Last December, Komen decided to end most of its funding to Planned Parenthood — apparently a move to establish neutrality on social issues. The foundation did not announce its decision publicly, but was soon blindsided when the nation’s largest abortion provider and its allies responded with a vitriolic campaign against Komen, which soon reinstated the funds. Komen’s policy reversal calmed the storm, but the foundation’s own ability to raise money for legitimate cancer research appears to have been diminished.

Add to these developments the Obama administration’s HHS contraception mandate — which requires Catholic and other religiously based employers to provide coverage for sterilization, free contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs, no matter what their churches teach on the matter — and the stage is set for confrontation.

That said, many pro-life activists contend that the Democrats have overplayed their hand.

“They are making a big mistake,” charged Ruse. He said that, according to polls, most people are willing to accept abortion in some circumstances but reject the notion that abortion should be legal in all circumstances. Ruse says that Democrats are “deluding themselves” in making abortion a key issue at their convention and, as a result of doing this, will likely be seen as “radical” by ordinary voters.

Jobs and the ballooning national debt have taken center stage in this campaign season. But pro-life activists who represent an important constituency in the GOP base have been very active in this presidential race.

Though some pundits and even abortion-rights activists suggest that the Democrats’ “war on women” rhetoric is a handy tactic to deflect attention from the president’s failure to reduce unemployment, organizations like the Susan B. Anthony List, which raises funds for pro-life candidates, welcome the opportunity to highlight their message and activities.

“We’re a single-issue organization,” said Kristan Hawkins, executive director of Students for Life, “and we were being told, ‘We can’t deal with abortion until after we have dealt with all these other issues.’” But the pro-abortion activists, says Hawkins, put the spotlight on abortion and offered the pro-life side an opportunity.

“Our entire mission going forward into the election is to expose President Obama on abortion, which includes extreme positions,” said Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List. She noted that while the president was still an Illinois state senator he voted against all versions of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which gave protection to children born alive, despite an attempted abortion. Obama more recently opposed the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, which would have banned abortion for the purpose of sex-selection. That bill has stalled in the House, after a fast-track procedure failed to garner the necessary votes; it is not clear whether there will be another vote on the bill.

The Susan B. Anthony List has launched a $150,000 advertising campaign in Missouri designed to highlight the president’s position. The ad shows Melissa Ohden, who survived an attempted abortion. “​I was aborted, and my body discarded … like I didn’t exist,” Ohden says in the ad.

The SBA List also has just completed a 30-stop bus tour through swing states, ending up in Tampa, Fla., and billed as “Women Speak Out: Abortion Is Not Health Care.”

Pro-life activist Jill Stanek joined the bus tour. Stanek is a nurse who began speaking out against partial-birth abortion after witnessing an infant survive abortion, only to be left to die in the hospital.

Contrary to what Democrats are counting on, SBA List’s Quigley says that abortion is “a winning issue, and pro-life voters help on the margins. They volunteer and do everything they can to help a pro-life candidate.”

Although the GOP has no position on contraception beyond upholding the religious freedom of employers who oppose the federal contraception mandate on religious or moral grounds, the Obama campaign has made contraception an “issue.”

“I think he is trying to divide Catholics,” said Students for Life’s Hawkins. She says that pro-lifers should realize that, if Obama is re-elected, he will have won his last election — and he will therefore have a freer hand to do what he wants to do.

Ruse added that by introducing contraception into the mix, the Democrats are trying to anchor the debate about social issue on “hard cases” — meaning that the vast majority of the American electorate regards contraception as a settled issue.

Further, many pro-life activists charge that unbalanced media coverage has skewed the public debate about these issues.

“The mainstream news media is once again demonstrating its eagerness to use any excuse to portray a Republican presidential ticket as out of the mainstream on abortion, while ignoring the truly extreme positions taken by the pro-abortion candidate — this year, President Obama,” charged Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, in a recent statement.

Yet it’s difficult to establish whether “the war on women” drumbeat is having an impact on women voters.

“Gender differences are a permanent feature in our politics,” said Karlyn Bowman, an expert on public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, “and so it’s not surprising that we are seeing them in 2012.” But there is little evidence now that the Democrats’ rhetoric is working with most women.

While a recent Washington Post/ABC survey found that married women back Mitt Romney 55%-40%, Obama is leading among all women (49%-43%), due to his huge advantage with unmarried women (57%-32%).

“Democrats are clearly trying to target unmarried women who didn’t turn out for them in significant numbers in 2010, and they believe these appeals will be successful. They also aim to increase turnout among women with a post-graduate education who lean heavily Democrat. But for most women, concerns about the economy and jobs will trump this” issue, Bowman said.

Abortion remains the central social issue for American voters, but same-sex “marriage” has emerged as a key concern in this presidential race, with the Democratic Party platform now embracing legal same-sex “marriage.” Echoing the views of pro-life leaders, Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage and author of Debating Same-Sex Marriage, thinks that might be another blunder.

“The Democratic Party is endorsing ‘gay marriage’ in response to the values of donors, activists and the media, not the American people,” she asserted. “[Obama] risks alienating black voters and energizing the GOP base. President Obama won North Carolina in 2008 by just 15,000 votes out of 4 million cast — 95% of the black vote in a state with 800,000 black voters. If he alienates just 1% of those voters by relentlessly pushing ‘gay marriage’ over the values and voice of the black church, it’s a loser for him.”

Gallagher said the Republican Union political action committee is now spending $1 million on billboards targeting Catholic Democrats, telling them Obama is pro-abortion and pro-“gay marriage.” She said that a new Life and Marriage Coalition has just formed and will be buying advertizing in key swing states.

The National Organization for Marriage recently announced that it has made a $34,000 ad buy in North Carolina. Rev. Patrick Wooden, a prominent black pastor, is featured in the ads.

“We’ve never seen this kind of direct, coordinated political action before from social conservative groups. It’s not good for the Democrats,” said Gallagher.

Jeffrey Bell, author and president and policy director of the American Principles Project, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., has long maintained that the abortion issue — which often scares Republicans — is actually helpful to them.

“The Democrats always make this mistake,” Bell said. “They don’t think it through, because, as with the commitment to the HHS mandate, it is ideological. Their motive is to make the Catholic Church and social conservatives surrender to the sexual revolution — and there is no better way to do this than making the Catholic Church pay for things it doesn’t believe in,” he argued.

“To say that Republicans have alienated women is a breathtaking generalization. Among women, there are divisions in opinion. Married women are more pro-life.”

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.