Laura Meckler reports from Kansas City, Mo., on the presidential race.

Sen. John McCain went out of his way to speak against abortion twice today at a town hall meeting before a friendly audience that vigorously applauded a range of conservative proposals. It’s a subject he rarely raises on the campaign trail unless asked directly about it—and one where Democrats think they have the edge.

The Republican presidential candidate also received strong applause when he said the nation should allow offshore drilling, and a standing ovation when he spoke of his support for the war in Iraq.

The first question concerned sexually graphic material on the Internet. McCain segued from that to abortion.

“I also would like to say one other thing very quickly to you–that is I am proud of my record of protecting and advocating the rights of the unborn. I believe this is also an important issue,” he said. He said the noblest words every written were the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“Life means the rights of the born and the unborn,” he said. “You can count on my active advocacy for the rights of the unborn.”

He also criticized his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, for opposing a ban on a late-term procedure opponents call “partial birth abortion.”

“My friends, that’s a hideous procedure. It should never be allowed any place on earth,” he said told several hundred supporters gathered at the historic Union Station.

Obama has said he wants an exception for the health of the mother.

Later, McCain was questioned by a woman who said she gave her son up for adoption and was trying to get him back. She asked what McCain would do to protect rights of birth parents. McCain spoke of his strong support of adoption and also volunteered that he would continue to protect the rights of “the born and the unborn.”

Abortion rights advocates believe that many voters mistakenly believe that McCain supports abortion rights and that they will be less inclined to vote for him once they realize he does not.

On the flip side, McCain did not back down for his support of embryonic stem cell research, anathema to many abortion opponents because it involves destruction of a human embryo, typically those left over from fertility treatments. McCain said he hoped that advancing research will obviate the need for stem cells.

“At the moment I support stem cell research [because of] the potential it has for curing some of the most terrible diseases that afflict mankind,” he said.

McCain also took a hard swipe at Obama over health care after an audience member suggested that government is already too involved in the health system.

“My friends, we’ve seen this movie before. It was called Hillary Care back in 1993,” he said to laughter, “and we’re not going to do it againl We’re not going to have the government take over the health care system in America. And that’s what Sen. Obama wants to do.”

Obama’s plan would involve a greater role for government in health care and new spending, but it is much different from the 1993 Clinton plan and most outside observers agree it is far from a government takeover of the health care system.