By NICHOLAS RICCARDI, Associated Press
ARVADA, Colo. (AP) — A nation at war, crippling joblessness and a looming budget standoff that could wreck the economy have been overshadowed in recent days by an issue that polls show doesn't even crack voters' lists of top 10 concerns: abortion.
Missouri Republican Todd Akin's comment that women who were victims of "legitimate rape" rarely become pregnant touched off furious maneuvering by Republicans and Democrats alike, the latest iteration of a campaign that has been driven by both sides' need to court a small slice of the American electorate. Several hundred thousand independent suburban women will play an outsized role in deciding whether President Barack Obama keeps his job.
Obama's campaign continued to press the issue Monday. In a tweet from (at)BarackObama, it noted that the GOP platform calls for outlawing abortion in cases of rape and incest. "Make sure the women in your life know: The GOP wants to take us back to the 1950s on women's health."
On Sunday, Mitt Romney accused Obama's campaign of sinking to a sad low by trying to link the GOP candidate to Akin's statements about rape and abortion.
Romney also conceded that the controversy is hurting the Republican Party, and GOP chairman Reince Priebus said Akin's insistence on staying in the Missouri Senate race could cost the party its shot at winning control of the Senate in November.
"It really is sad, isn't it, with all the issues that America faces for the Obama campaign to continue to stoop to such a low level," Romney said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday."
Romney's comments were in response to Obama's contention that the Republican candidate has locked himself into "extreme positions" on economic and social issues and would surely impose them if elected president.
"I don't think that if Congress presented him with some of the items that are in the Republican platform at this convention that would, for example, entirely roll back women's control over their reproductive health, that he would stand in the way," Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press published Saturday.
The charges and countercharges reflect an ongoing political skirmish that shows no signs of letting up about two months before Election Day.
While suburban women are always a sought-after demographic in presidential campaigns — 10 million more women than men voted in 2008 — both sides agree that this campaign has been marked by an unusual intensity of debate over women's issues, particularly reproductive rights.
Both sides have clashed this year over Romney's calls to end federal funding of Planned Parenthood, Republican demands to let some employers with religious beliefs avoid covering workers' birth control costs and a Democratic political operative's chastising of Romney's wife for being a housewife.
Polling data is mixed and hotly debated over whether the abortion issue helps candidates who favor abortion rights or those who oppose them. But Tony Robinson, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, said that Republicans are in peril this time because the stances they are now talking about — like banning abortion in cases of rape or restricting birth control — are ones that are widely unpopular.
"Whatever party is driven to its most extreme positions on this is punished by the electorate," Robinson said.
Democrats and some independent analysts say Republicans kicked off the debate by tacking hard to the right during the GOP primary.
"Rick Santorum is really the person they have to blame for this attention now," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, referring to the former Pennsylvania senator and strong abortion foe, who fought to pull social conservatives away from Romney during the primary.
In the hours after Akin's comments, Democrats leapt at the chance to link him to the Republican presidential ticket — almost as quickly as Romney, his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, and other prominent conservatives — scrambled to condemn the remarks.
Democrats noted that Ryan had co-sponsored a controversial bill of Akin's that they contended would redefine rape, announced a list of abortion rights activists as speakers at their upcoming convention and a weeklong national swing of female surrogates dubbed the "Romney/Ryan: Wrong for Women" tour.