Democrats seized Wednesday on a Republican Senate candidate’s comments about pregnancy, looking to regain an upper hand with female voters not only in that state but also in the nationwide presidential campaign.
The candidate, Richard Mourdock of Indiana, apologized Wednesday for what he called the awkwardness of his remarks, in which he defended his opposition to abortion in most cases by saying that even pregnancy caused by rape is the will of God. Democrats criticized him, saying the remarks were demeaning to women and working to convince women to turn away from Mourdock as well as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The brouhaha came as both parties wage a high-stakes contest for the support of female voters, a fight given new urgency as Democrats have lost their big lead among women and consequently found President Barack Obama in a neck-and neck-fight for the presidency.
It was unclear whether Democrats would be able to regain their historic advantage nationally among women. Last-minute controversies have a history of affecting close races, but this time most voters already have decided on their candidates. The controversy’s impact on persuadable voters could depend on how long the story survives.
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“Is this likely to affect a lot of voters? I’m skeptical,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The greatest impact could come in the Indiana Senate race, where Mourdock is fighting to keep the seat now held by Richard Lugar in Republican hands. “Odds are 75 percent it will cost Mourdock the seat,” said Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. “It’s going to be something that will dominate local news all week.”
The story started in a Senate debate Tuesday night when Mourdock was asked about his opposition to abortion in all cases except when the woman’s life is in danger. His opponent, Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., supports abortion rights in cases of rape, incest or saving the woman’s life.
"I struggled with it myself for a long time,” a highly emotional Mourdock said. “But I came to realize life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Soon after the debate, he and his campaign worked to make sure no one thought he was saying that rape itself was God’s will. "God creates life, and that was my point," a campaign statement said. "God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that He does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick."
On Wednesday, Mourdock apologized for giving the impression to anyone that he condoned rape or that he thought God condoned rape. “I have certainly been humbled by the fact that so many people think that somehow was an interpretation,” he said. “I absolutely abhor violence. I abhor any kind of sexual violence. I am absolutely convinced that the God I worship abhors violence.”
Romney, who’s endorsed Mourdock and appears in a TV ad for him that started airing Monday, distanced himself from Mourdock’s remarks. “Gov. Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock’s comments, and they do not reflect his views,” spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. Romney opposes abortion rights, but does support exceptions in cases of rape, incest or to save the woman’s life.
He didn’t withdraw his endorsement or ask that the ad featuring his endorsement be pulled from Indiana’s airwaves.
Democrats hit Mourdock and Romney within moments of the debate and continued Wednesday.
“The president felt those comments were outrageous and demeaning to women,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday, raising the subject herself when reporters didn’t ask about it. “This is 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.”
“National Republicans cannot paper over Richard Mourdock’s heinous views on rape. Enough is enough,” added Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Asked about the remarks on the Jay Leno program Wednesday night, Obama said, "Let me make a very simple proposition: Rape is rape. It is a crime. ... And so, these various distinctions about rapedon't make too much sense to me.”
Democrats also hoped that the Mourdock remarks would cause the same controversy as remarks earlier this year by Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin in Missouri. Akin, a Missouri congressman, set off a firestorm when he explained his opposition to abortion rights even in cases of rape by saying it was rare for a woman to get pregnant if she really were raped.
Republican leaders, including Romney, distanced themselves from Akin.
In this case, Republican leaders and their allies were firm Wednesday in lining up behind Mourdock.
“Richard and I, along with millions of Americans – including even Joe Donnelly – believe that life is a gift from God. To try and construe his words as anything other than a restatement of that belief is irresponsible and ridiculous,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“Richard Mourdock said that life is always a gift from God, and we couldn’t agree more. To report his statement as an endorsement of rape is either willfully ignorant or malicious,” added Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the conservative Susan B. Anthony List.
The major Western religions take varying positions on abortion.
“The Catholic Church’s position is that direct abortion is the killing of an innocent life. However tragic, there are no exceptions to this position, even to save the life of the mother,” said Karey Harwood, an associate professor of religious studies at North Carolina State University. “The Jewish and Protestant positions are too internally diverse to summarize as singular positions.”