ROLLA, Mo. — The first stop on Republican Todd Akin’s bus tour in his renegade campaign for U.S. Senate was Rush Limbaugh’s hometown, then he headed west to the rural communities off historic Route 66 and north to the capital — criss-crossing a state where billboards with anti-abortion messages dot the highways.
Politics and religion fuse openly here —as they do for Akin, who earned a master’s degree in divinity before launching a nearly 12-year career as a congressman. His ability to inspire evangelical and tea party voters to turn out will be critical in his challenge to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill after he alienated some voters when he asserted that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy.
At an evening stop in McCaskill’s rural birthplace of Rolla in southern Missouri, Akin brought his mix of politics and religion to the storefront headquarters of the Phelps County Republicans. “If you want to know how to take back America, we take back America by understanding who we are,” Akin said. “We’re God’s children.”
Dressed in khaki trousers and a navy blazer, Akin runs through his election-year grievances against McCaskill with the efficiency of a businessman and the passion of a preacher. He knocks her support for President Obama’s stimulus package, healthcare law and bank bailouts.
She is part, he says, of the “liberal Senate.”
This land of Harry Truman has an increasingly Republican tilt. Akin once seemed likely to be the next Republican to benefit, even though he was the more conservative candidate in the GOP primary and the opponent McCaskill wanted most. But his misstep played right into McCaskill’s campaign strategy: to cast him as extreme and out of step with mainstream Missourians.
“He was tea party before there was a tea party,” said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
To be sure, the race remains a challenge for McCaskill, whose unfavorable ratings could still pose political problems. McCaskill was an early supporter of Obama’s first campaign for president, but the nation’s new healthcare law, his top domestic achievement, was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in a statewide referendum. Akin is running a TV ad showing McCaskill in Obama’s embrace.
Missouri has changed in the six years since McCaskill narrowly won her seat. It has caught up with other Southern states that have flipped from Democratic to Republican strongholds, notes E. Terrence Jones, chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Romney is poised to carry the state in November.
To capture the more moderate voters Akin may have left behind, McCaskill portrays herself as “No. 50,” a reference to a national ranking that puts her 50th of the 100 senators on a partisan scale. “Right in the middle,” she says in one TV ad.
But McCaskill’s biggest advantage may be her campaign war chest, which is much richer than Akin’s. She dipped into it last week as Akin toured the state, releasing a new television ad highlighting some of his positions: abolishing the minimum wage, ending federal student loans, questioning the constitutionality of Medicare.
Akin says he believes such programs are an overreach for the federal government, essentially a form of “socialism,” and better left to the states.
In the weeks ahead, McCaskill’s team is widely expected to try to do to Akin what Democrats did to Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada and other tea party favorites who lost Senate races two years ago after being characterized as out of step with mainstream American politics.
“He’s so far on the fringe,” McCaskill said during her first debate with Akin. And she made sure to note that Akin opposed abortion in all instances, even in cases of rape.
Akin has been visibly upbeat on the campaign trail, believing he has been vindicated in his decision to stay in the race after top Republicans, including Mitt Romney, told him to go.
He is taking phone calls from some who reversed course to support him. Others, including former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, plan to visit the state on his behalf, stepping into the void left by national party leaders.
“Akin is being seen as the hero,” said Brandy Pedersen, former vice chairwoman of the St. Charles County Republican Party in the suburbs west of St. Louis and an Akin supporter. “How dare the party do this to one of our own?”
Yet among women, unease with Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment lingers. Akin backed away from his contention that women’s bodies have ways “to shut that whole thing down” and apologized for using the “wrong words.”
Outside the Rolla office, a few women protested Akin’s arrival. In the state’s larger cities, he is often greeted by groups of women wearing pink “Women are Watching” T-shirts from Planned Parenthood.
Linda Becker, spokeswoman for Missouri Women Standing with Todd Akin, argued, “There’s a whole lot more important issues we need to be discussing right now.”
But even some supporters winced when asked about his remarks.
“What Todd said is sort of ridiculous,” said Mary Barrett, a self-described conservative, as she left a Republican women’s group meeting in Kirkwood, a St. Louis suburb. “But we’re steady with him because I cannot vote for Claire McCaskill.”