The firestorm over congressman Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” has dominated campaign headlines and put the sensitive issue of abortion back into the spotlight ahead of the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida.
A panel has approved an anti-abortion amendment as part of the Republican platform at the convention and the divisive pro-life issue is a minefield for Romney, who lags behind President Barack Obama among women voters.
Fearing a monumental backlash that would harm efforts by Romney to reverse that polling trend, Republican leaders closed ranks and essentially ordered Akin to go.
“Todd Akin’s comments were offensive and wrong and he should very seriously consider what course would be in the best interest of our country,” Romney, who will challenge Obama in the November 6 election, said in a terse statement.
“Today, his fellow Missourians (four former US senators) urged him to step aside, and I think he should accept their counsel and exit the Senate race.”
But while Akin apologized, the staunchly pro-life conservative said he wasn’t going anywhere, and a Missouri deadline for him to quit the race passed late Tuesday without him dropping out.
“I believe there is a cause here,” Akin said on former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s radio show, adding he was getting “a great deal of grass roots support.”
“The defence of the unborn and a deep respect for life (are) important parts of who we are, and they’re not things to run away from.”
Akin shocked the political world Sunday when he said women rarely conceive as a result of a “legitimate rape” because their bodies have the capacity to prevent such a pregnancy.
The comments sucked the air out of the political debate just as Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan were looking to build a head of steam rolling into next week’s convention, where they will introduce themselves to millions of Americans during prime time.
It was not immediately clear just how much harm Akin has done to the Romney campaign, but Republicans fear Akin’s gaffe will jeopardize party efforts to woo female voters and seize majority control of the Senate in November.
An NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday showed that the Democratic ticket of Obama and Vice President Joe Biden has a four-point lead (48 percent to 44 percent) over Romney and Ryan.
The numbers are little changed from July, when Obama led Romney by six points, suggesting a small bounce since the Republican hopeful picked Ryan as his vice presidential candidate earlier this month.
But Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a former top advisor for then-president George W. Bush, said the rape row was causing damage.
“The problem is that Akin’s statement just reinforces (the) GOP’s general problem with women,” McKinnon told AFP.
The party denied Akin about $5 million in campaign funding and political action committee Crossroads GPS said it was halting its spending in Missouri, including $2.3 million it had committed to advertising in the state.
Akin tried to sound repentant in a new campaign ad seeking forgiveness from voters.
“Rape is an evil act. I used the wrong words in the wrong way, and for that I apologize,” he said, in a 30-second spot which featured a grave looking Akin addressing the camera directly.
“I have a compassionate heart for the victims of sexual assault, and I pray for them.”
Akin is running against Claire McCaskill, a vulnerable incumbent Democrat in the Senate, and Republicans saw a crucial potential pick-up there. Now the outlook is different, and McCaskill quickly sought to raise campaign funds on her rival’s remarks.
Even as Republicans were scrambling to douse the flames, party leaders voted Tuesday on a platform to be unveiled at the convention that includes a “human life amendment” that would outlaw abortion, making no explicit exemptions for rape or incest.
“We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children,” the draft said, according to CNN.
Democrats were eager to see Akin stay in the race, as it would only highlight a debate over abortion and women’s rights that Democrats believe will hurt Romney.
Obama, who denounced Akin’s comments on Monday, was campaigning in the battleground state of Ohio, while Romney attended fundraisers in Texas.