WASHINGTON - Just as Mitt Romney and other Republicans had cut into the Democrats' advantage with female voters, a tea party-backed Senate candidate's awkward remark - that if rape leads to pregnancy it's "something God intended" - has propelled the emotional issue of abortion back to the political forefront. It's put GOP candidates in tight races, from the presidential candidate on down, on the defensive.
Divisive social issues are hardly what most GOP candidates want to be discussing in the few days remaining until elections largely hinging on jobs and the economy. Almost immediately after Richard Mourdock's comment, Republican candidates distanced themselves from the Indiana state treasurer - though by varying degrees.
The Romney campaign said Wednesday that the presidential nominee disagreed with Mourdock but stood by his endorsement of the Senate candidate. There were no plans to drop a Romney testimonial ad for Mourdock that began airing in Indiana on Monday.
On Tuesday night, Mourdock was asked during the closing minutes of a debate with Donnelly whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.
"I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that 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," Mourdock said.
Said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul: "We disagree on the policy regarding exceptions for rape and incest but still support him."
Reaction was quick from Republican senators and candidates rejecting Mourdock's statement.
Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, struggling to hold onto his seat against a challenge from Democrat Elizabeth Warren, said he was "a pro-choice Republican and that's not what I believe and I disagree with what he said." Pressed on his support for Mourdock's candidacy, Brown said that was up to Indiana voters.
Connecticut Republican Linda McMahon, bidding for the Senate seat there, called Mourdock's remarks "highly inappropriate and offensive. They do not reflect my beliefs as a woman or a pro-choice candidate."
New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who had planned to campaign with Mourdock in Indiana, canceled her appearance.
At a news conference Wednesday, Mourdock stood by his statement but suggested he had been misunderstood.
"I think that God can see beauty in every life," Mourdock said. "Certainly, I did not intend to suggest that God wants rape, that God pushes people to rape, that God wants to support or condone evil in any way."
The Obama campaign said the president found Mourdock's comments "outrageous and demeaning to women," and it contended they were "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."