With Akin’s help, unwelcome abortion issue hangs over GOP

Days before the launch of a convention vital to his election hopes, Mitt Romney and fellow Republicans were embroiled Tuesday in an effort to shove aside a U.S. Senate candidate who thrust the unwelcome issue of abortion to the fore of the political debate.

In Tampa, Fla., where convention delegates were drafting the Republican Party platform, the controversy drew wide attention to a plank opposing abortion with no exception for victims of rape or incest.

“Well done,” said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, chairman of the platform committee, praising delegates for avoiding the sort of prolonged debate that threatened to fracture Republicans in previous party gatherings.

Even if relatively brief, the discussion was not one that Romney would have chosen to highlight as the preview to the convention next week, which he badly needs to burnish his image and soften the rough edges of the tea-party-infused GOP.

But there were no signs the issue was going away.

Defying increasing pressure from top party leaders, Rep. Todd Akin refused to bow out of the Missouri Senate race, overshadowing for another day efforts by Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, to focus their fight on President Obama.

To the contrary, Akin’s remarks — that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy — and his continuing candidacy ensured that the platform deliberations would be closely watched as part of a mushrooming debate over women’s rights that is suddenly at the center not just of the presidential race but also the fight for control of the U.S. Senate.

The abortion plank adopted in Tampa, which favors a “human life amendment” to the Constitution and opposes abortion without exception, is the same language the GOP adopted at its previous two conventions. But in a new light, Democrats were quick to label it the “Akin plank” and press their assertion that Republicans are not just out of step but actively hostile toward women.

Romney, like other recent Republican nominees, differs with his party’s abortion plank, which, like the rest of the platform, represents a nonbinding statement of party principles. The former Massachusetts governor opposes abortion, with exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother, the official position of the ticket. In the past, his running mate has opposed abortion except when the mother’s life is at risk.

After offering an oblique hint on Monday, Romney joined the growing Republican chorus Tuesday urging Akin to quit the Senate race.

“As I said yesterday, Todd Akin’s comments were offensive and wrong and he should very seriously consider what course would be in the best interest of our country,” Romney said in a statement. “Today, his fellow Missourians urged him to step aside and I think he should accept their counsel and exit the Senate race.”

Ignoring Romney and others, the Akin campaign produced a new ad in which the candidate asked for “forgiveness” for his comments and described himself as “in this race to the end.”

The GOP’s bad fortune — having their Missouri Senate candidate self-immolate in a race crucial to their hopes of winning the Senate in November — is a great bit of luck for the embattled Obama. (Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, whom many Democrats had all but written off, is, of course, the biggest beneficiary.)

It is not just that Akin managed to change the campaign discussion from Obama’s greatest vulnerability, the nation’s persistently high unemployment rate and the attendant anxiety that has produced among a sizable swath of the electorate. The economy will almost surely reassert itself as the dominant issue in the campaign, perhaps as soon as the next monthly jobless report in September.

Rather, the controversy the Republican generated has also played perfectly to the president’s hopes of driving a further wedge between women and the GOP.

Forced to move right during the contentious Republican primaries, Romney took a number of positions — among them cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood and allowing employers to deny contraceptive coverage if it violated their moral convictions — that have proved problematic as he appeals to a broader general election audience.

(He was not operating from a position of strength to begin with, as his support for abortion rights earlier in his political career — he switched in advance of his first presidential run in 2008 — left many Republicans questioning his moorings.)

Obama has seized on the contraception issue in particular, though it is hardly the most pressing matter facing the country, as a centerpiece of efforts to assert Romney and his fellow Republicans want to turn the clock back to a more repressive era.

The result is a distinct gender gap. A July poll from the Pew Research Center showed Obama and Romney tied among male voters, but the president ahead among women by nearly 20 percentage points. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll completed this week also gave Obama a narrower though still double-digit lead among women.

Akin’s comments surely did not help.

“The problem is whenever women hear his remarks, and they’re certainly going to be hearing them in campaign advertising over and over again, they’re offended and take it as a sign that Republicans are out of touch with women andwomen’s healthissues,” said Lara M. Brown, a political analyst at Villanova University.

GOP strategists have argued, with polling data as their backup, that the biggest issue of concern to women — especially breadwinners — is the lagging economy, which can be especially onerous for single and struggling moms.

But, as Brown observed, is it harder for Republicans to make the case against Obama if the presidential campaign is focused more on women’s bodies than their wallets.

From the GOP perspective, the best that might be said is that Akin made his ill-considered comments in mid-August rather than mid-October, allowing time for memories to fade and tempers to settle down. Not, though, if Democrats can help it.

Paul West in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.