The first Republican presidential debate is officially on August 6 in Cleveland. But the contenders for the party’s nomination were already scrambling on Monday to outflank one another as the party’s most ardent foe of reproductive rights. In advance of a Senate vote on a proposal to defund Planned Parenthood, Republican candidates who sit in the Senate made moves that seemed at every turn to confirm Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards’ observation that the effort to cut federal support for clinics across the country was “all about politics.”

Republican contenders Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida were leading the charge against continued funding of the health-care provider. Paul highlighted his decision to be in DC rather than New Hampshire or Iowa with a message to Twitter followers that read: “Voting to defund Planned Parenthood now, please chip in to help me continue fighting Washington Machine.” The message steered recipients toward a secure fund-raising sight that reminded the faithful that, “Each individual may contribute up to $2,700 per election ($5,400 total).”

A fourth Republican contender, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, got grief for missing the vote in order to appear in person at a New Hampshire forum — despite Graham’s accurate but poorly-received attempt to explain that the vote was meaningless because President Obama would surely veto the measure.

Such are the political dynamics surrounding the latest effort to limit access to basic health services for women.

Never mind that the effort failed on a procedural vote. Supporters of the defunding measure got just 53 of the 60 votes needed to advance the proposal — which Maine Senator Angus King, an independent who joined most Democrats in opposing the move, described as so misguided that it was the equivalent of “attacking Brazil after Pearl Harbor. It’s a vigorous response, but it’s the wrong target.”

What was happening Monday in the Senate was not about the legislative process.

It was about the political process in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And it is unlikely that Monday’s vote marked the end of the politicking within the Capitol.

As summer turns to fall, and as the Republican competition intensifies, the lines between campaigning and governing are all but certain to blur. It is certainly true that Republican and Democratic senators seeking presidential nominations have in the past played politics within the Capitol. But the fight over Planned Parenthood funding has taken on a fervency that is likely to distinguish it from the usual inside-the-beltway positioning.

There is already talk among some congressional Republicans of trying to force a fall shutdown of the federal government in an effort to eliminate funding for for Planned Parenthood clinics. Parallel efforts to cut funding at the state level are being advanced by Republican governors/presidential candidates such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. (The Associated Press reports that, “Planned Parenthood receives more than $500 million yearly in government funds — including state payments — more than one-third of its annual $1.3 billion in revenue. Its annual report says it provides services for 2.7 million people annually, mostly women, with abortions accounting for 3 percent of its procedures.”)

Determined to identify themselves as the most reliable champions of the social-conservative agenda that holds sway with likely Iowa caucus participants and a lot of Republican primary voters in states across the country, Republican candidates have seized on the Planned Parenthood funding issue since controversial videos focused attention on the practice of providing fetal tissue to scientific researchers.

Though the videos are getting the attention, Richards points out that what is really at stake in the defunding debate is access to care for millions of American women who rely on the services they receive from Planned Parenthood clinics. “The vote (Monday was) about denying women access to birth control, cancer screenings, testing and treatment for many women where Planned Parenthood is their only doctor,” she said.

Unfortunately, the senators/candidates did not recognize those nuances.

Cruz and Paul appeared last week at a Washington rally in support of the defunding move. Websites of anti-choice groups that have long attacked Planned Parenthood are featuring a column penned by Rubio that was headlined “Defund It Now!” And Graham is making it clear that he is fervently anti-choice, as are non-senators such as Walker, whose stump speech highlights his moves to defund Planned Parenthood in Wisconsin.

It’s not that the candidates are “evolving” their positions, as 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney did when he moved from Massachusetts senatorial and gubernatorial politics to the federal stage. Most of the Republican contenders have histories of opposing abortion rights; and sharp criticisms of Planned Parenthood were being voiced on the GOP campaign trail long before the graphic videos were circulated by the anti-abortion “Center for Medical Progress.”

But the candidates who happen to be senators have emerged as especially ardent advocates for defunding Planned Parenthood clinics that provide women’s health services, family planning and access to abortions to millions of Americans. The GOP contenders are only beginning to ramp up the rhetoric. As The Hill notes, “GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates have questioned whether the organization profited from those donations, and GOP leaders have tasked congressional committees with launching investigations.”

Planned Parenthood’s Richards spent much of Monday countering the over-the-top claims of critics. “There were no laws broken. It’s absolutely illegal to make any profit and we do not. Planned Parenthood makes zero profit on any fetal tissue donations,” she explained Monday on MSNBC. “We are 100 percent non-profit and we make zero money from fetal tissue donations.”

But those details are unlikely to dissuade the candidates.

As Richards explained with justified frustration, what has developed is not an honest debate about Planned Parenthood or its work. Rather, she says, the group faces an assault that “is completely a political campaign.”