By DAVID A. LIEB, Associated Press
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A game of political chicken is playing out among the nation's top Republicans and Missouri's embattled GOP nominee for the Senate.
Will Rep. Todd Akin eventually cave to party leaders' demands and drop his challenge to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill? Or will the Republican establishment conclude that their effort to take control of the Senate is too important and reluctantly support him, despite his inflammatory remarks about rape and pregnancy?
Two weeks after the remarks, each side remains stubbornly insistent that the other should blink.
If Akin refuses to quit, and deep-pocketed Republicans refuse to finance him, "it's pretty much a done deal that we have given this race to Claire McCaskill," said Carol Thomas, one of many Missouri Republicans who backed Akin in an August primary but now bemoan the party's predicament.
The GOP quandary is this: Party leaders no longer believe Akin can win, so they have abandoned him and vowed to pull millions of dollars of planned advertising. But Akin, who still thinks he can unseat McCaskill, will have a much harder time doing so without their help.
In an interview with conservative activists this past week at the Republican National Convention, party Chairman Reince Priebus remained firmly against Akin — even if Akin is locked in a close race as the Nov. 6 election draws near.
"He could be tied. We're not going to send him a penny," Priebus said in the videotaped interview that was publicized by Akin's campaign.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the conservative Crossroads group have insisted they're not bluffing about revoking the money for anti-McCaskill ads.
Akin has been equally firm in his commitment to stay in the race. He believes Republican leaders need to change their minds and says many voters are welcoming him back as he resumes campaigning.
"I'm sensing, as I'm on the road, a deep resentment of the people at the grassroots level of Missouri of being pushed aside and the party bosses wanting to appoint their own person," Akin told The Associated Press. "There is an increasingly coalescing base of support for my race in Missouri."
Public opinion polls have varied, with some showing Akin still roughly even with McCaskill and others indicating he now trails.
Missouri's Senate race had been considered vital to the Republicans' goal of picking up the four seats necessary to regain control of the Senate. But those chances diminished after Akin remarked in an interview that aired Aug. 19 on St. Louis television station KTVI that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." He repeatedly apologized, but many Republicans urged him to quit so the party could pick a replacement candidate.
"I think he's selfish. If he cared about his party, I think he would have dropped out," Thomas said.
Akin denies any selfish ambitions.
"This decision is not about me at all," he told KTVI this past week. "America faces a choice of two entirely different futures. This is about our country, and doing the right thing for our county. And that has been the only thing that I've considered."
Stephen Nowels, a member of the Republican committee in St. Louis, said he will probably leave the Senate box blank or vote for a third-party candidate because of Akin's comments.
"Voters tend to forget stuff," said Nowels, who runs a violin store. But "I don't think they're going to forget this one."
As Election Day approaches, it's more likely that Republican powerbrokers will give in than it is that Akin will budge, said longtime political scientist Richard Fulton, a professor at Northwest Missouri State University.
If Akin is within 5 percentage points in the polls in October, "I think the big-money conservative PACS will find a way to get him some money," Fulton said.
But if top Republicans want to double-down on their opposition to Akin, there is another alternative. Missouri law allows write-in candidates to file for office until Oct. 26. That possibility gained steam last weekend when Republican strategist Mary Matalin suggested the GOP could field former state party Chairwoman Ann Wagner as a Senate write-in candidate.
Waging a write-in campaign would require Wagner to drop her bid to succeed Akin in his suburban St. Louis district, something that Wagner's campaign manager flatly rejected.
Missouri law prohibits the losers of party primaries from later filing as write-in candidates for the same office. That means the Republican candidates who lost to Akin last month can't resume their campaigns.
Saint Louis University political scientist Ken Warren said it is "virtually impossible" for write-in candidates to win. Strom Thurmond did it in South Carolina in 1954. But since then, only one Senate candidate has done so: Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski won re-election as a write-in two years ago after losing in the Republican primary.
A write-in campaign would also carry a distinct risk: In a three-way Senate race, another Republican could split the vote with Akin, allowing for an easy McCaskill win, Warren said.
Associated Press Writer Jim Salter contributed to this report from St. Louis.