WASHINGTON — Another Republican Senate candidate’s awkward remark about rape and pregnancy has forced Mitt Romney to confront the emotional issue of abortion, just as the White House challenger hoped to focus on jobs and the economy to keep up his momentum in the few days remaining until the election.
Richard Mourdock’s comment — that if rape leads to pregnancy it’s “something God intended” — put Republican candidates from Romney on down on the defensive and sent them scrambling to protect their recent gains among female voters. It was not what most Republicans wanted to be discussing days before an extremely close election largely hinging on concerns about the weak U.S. economic recovery.
President Barack Obama’s campaign jumped on Mourdock’s remark, calling it “demeaning to women.” The Democratic president, who supports abortion rights, retains an advantage among women, but recent polls have suggested Romney has cut into that edge.
In debate appearances and speeches, the Republican challenger has hammered home the message that America’s women have suffered economically over the last four years.
Almost immediately after Mourdock’s comment, Republicans distanced themselves from the Indiana Senate candidate — though by varying degrees.
The Romney campaign said Wednesday that the presidential nominee disagreed with what Mourdock said but stood by his endorsement of the Senate candidate. There were no plans to drop a Romney testimonial ad for Mourdock that began airing in Indiana on Monday. Romney opposes abortion but, unlike Mourdock, supports exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
Mourdock’s comment in a Tuesday night debate came in answer to a question on when abortion should or should not be allowed. The candidate explained after the debate that he did not believe God intended the rape but that God is the only one who can create life.
Said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul: “We disagree on the policy regarding exceptions for rape and incest but still support him.”
Several Republican senators and candidates — some of them facing tight races themselves — forcefully rejected Mourdock’s comment. One senator who had planned to campaign with Mourdock in Indiana cancelled her appearance.
Romney and several Republicans have been moderating their positions in the campaign’s closing days, making their final pitch to the independents, undecideds and female voters whose votes could tip both the presidential election and majority control of the Senate.
With recent national polls showing Obama’s edge with female voters shrinking to single digits, Democrats eagerly made Mourdock’s comment an issue for Romney and Republican Senate candidates.
The Obama campaign said the president found Mourdock’s comments “outrageous and demeaning to women,” and it contended they were “a reminder that a Republican Congress working with a Republican President Mitt Romney would feel that women should not be able to make choices about their own health care.”
Said spokeswoman Jen Psaki of Romney: “It is perplexing that he wouldn’t demand to have that ad taken down.”
In another close Senate race, Romney had called on Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin to drop out after Akin remarked in August that women’s bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in cases of what he called “legitimate rape.” Akin has since apologized, but a seat that Republicans had been expected to gain could now remain under the Democrats’ control.
Indiana and Missouri are part of a series of Senate race stalemates across the U.S. that has left open the question of which party will control the upper chamber in January — control the next president will need to have any hope of enacting much of his agenda. While attention has focused on the White House race, campaign cash is also pouring into 10 stubbornly-close Senate races, from Massachusetts to Virginia to Arizona. Republicans must gain four seats if Obama is re-elected, or three if Romney prevails, to win the majority of the 100-seat seat Senate.
Despite the abortion flare-ups, Obama and Romney have both tried to keep their campaigns focused on the issue that most matters to voters this election: the economy.
In remarks released Wednesday, Obama confidently predicted he’ll reach agreement with lawmakers to reduce the U.S. deficit in the first six months and overhaul immigration law within the first year if he’s re-elected. His comments to The Des Moines Register were originally off the record, but his campaign agreed to release a transcript under pressure from the newspaper.
Obama set out Wednesday on a marathon 40-hour campaign through five highly contested states that could decide the election.
Romney, campaigning in battleground Nevada, urged voters to consider their personal circumstances as they make their choice.
“We’re going to get this economy cooking again,” he declared.