Remarks by Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin are making presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's job of convincing women voters to vote for the GOP ticket exponentially more difficult.
Akin, a tea party conservative running against incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, was asked about his position on abortion under a series of different circumstances during a television interview. Akin set the political world on fire when he responded to a question about abortions for rape victims.
"First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," Akin said on Sunday. "But let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child."
Akin later responded to the criticism, saying he "misspoke." He did not clarify what specifically he was referring to.
Not only is Akin's misinformation about what happens to a female body during a rape – there's no medical evidence to support his theory about it 'shutting down' to prevent pregnancy – likely alarm voters, his use of the phrase 'legitimate rape' implies that some rapes are illegitimate. That's hardly a supposition that is likely to woo women voters. Sexual assault victims have long had to cope with the stigma and feeling that they are in part to blame for the crime and consciously or not, Akin's comments allude to the 'blame the victim' imagery.
It also plays right into Democratic election year accusations of a Republican 'war on women.'
Former GOP congressman and pundit Joe Scarborough said on his MSNBC show on Monday that Akin's words were "inexplicable, ignorant."
McCaskill, appearing with Scarborough on "Morning Joe," said the statement was "a window into Todd Akin's mind."
"This is incredibly painful because it shows how many people are out there, sometimes in very important positions, that just don't understand the trauma and don't understand what it means," she said.
McCaskill had been trailing Akin by as many as 10 points in some polls, but now Akin is seen as so toxic some speculate he could be replaced by another Republican on the Missouri ballot. But that decision would have to be made almost immediately as the deadline for the change is Tuesday.
The Romney campaign sought to separate itself from the controversy, issuing a release that said, "Gov. Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin's statement and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape."
Romney more strongly rebuked Akin’s words Monday in an interview with the National Review Online, calling them “entirely without merit.”
“Congressman Akin’s comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong,” Romney said. “Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive. I have an entirely different view. What he said is entirely without merit and he should correct it.”
Other Republican Senate candidates embroiled in tight contests, such as George Allen in Virginia, also issued statements distancing themselves from Akin.
But pro-choice groups, already spending heavily to portray Romney and vice presidential pick Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as bad for women, now have powerful imagery to tie to the GOP brand. And Romney's own convoluted record on the issue –while running for governor in the liberal state of Massachusetts he supported the pro-choice position but changed his mind once elected and as he was planning his first presidential run.
Ryan, a Catholic, has already been attacked by pro-choice groups such as NARAL and Emily's List for his pro-life position and bills he's sponsored in Congress, such as a so-called 'personhood' measure that would grant that status to embryos. A similar proposal was turned down by voters in conservative Mississippi because it was seen as too extreme.
It's not likely to matter how many times Romney tries to denounce Akin, he will suffer politically – not in any small part because when he's forced to talk about social issues, it means he isnot talking about the economy, his perceived electoral strength.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.
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UPDATE: 8/20/12, 10:15 a.m.: This story was updated with comments Mitt Romney made to National Review Online.