Democrats on Monday pounced on Rep. Todd Akin's (R-Mo.) controversial comments on rape, working to tie the GOP Senate nominee to fellow members of his party while Republicans scrambled to distance themselves from his remarks.
Akin, who's challenging Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) for her Senate seat, said in an interview with a local Fox affiliate released on Sunday that, in cases of "legitimate rape," pregnancy is rare because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), in a fundraising email, said she was "outraged at the Republicans trying to take women back to the Dark Ages."
Her comments are notable, indicating this could be a rallying point not just for Missouri Democrats but for Democrats nationwide, as it offers them a new entry into their "War on Women" theme against the GOP, which largely died down during the summer campaign cycle.
The DNC email was quick to tie Akin's comments to the Romney campaign, noting that the presumptive GOP nominee said he would defund Planned Parenthood and that Ryan has a staunchly pro-life voting record.
Romney distanced himself from Akin in a statement issued on Sunday through his campaign and in an interview on Monday with National Review Online, in which he called the comment "insulting, inexcusable, and frankly, wrong."
President Obama's reelection team said that Romney and Ryan were contradicting their own records on the issue.
"While Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are working overtime to distance themselves from Rep. Todd Akin’s comments on rape, they are contradicting their own records," Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement. "Mr. Romney supports the Human Life Amendment, which would ban abortion in all instances, even in the case of rape and incest. In fact, that amendment is a central part of the Republican Party’s platform that is being voted on tomorrow.
"And, as a Republican leader in the House," the statement continues, "Mr. Ryan worked with Mr. Akin to try to pass laws that would ban abortion in all cases, and even narrow the definition of ‘rape.’ Every day, women across America grapple with difficult and intensely personal health decisions — decisions that should ultimately be between a woman and her doctor. These decisions are not made any easier when Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan treat women’s health as a matter of partisan politics."
The Romney campaign will also keep a physical distance from Akin. They said the lawmaker will not be campaigning with Ryan in Missouri on Thursday, when the vice presidential nominee is in the state.
Other Republicans were also critical of Akin, with the harshest response coming from Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who called for Akin to resign as Missouri's GOP Senate nominee. Brown is facing a tough battle to keep his Senate seat.
And Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), locked in a close race for Montana's Senate seat against Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.), called Akin's comments "reprehensible."
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) also called on Akin to resign as nominee.
"Todd Akin’s statements are reprehensible and inexcusable. He should step aside today for the good of the nation," Johnson tweeted.
The Romney camp stopped short, however, of echoing calls for Akin to drop out of the race.
"No, we'll leave that to them to sort out," Romney adviser Stuart Stevens said, according to The Washington Post.
Influential Republican strategist Karl Rove declined to denounce Akin or call for his removal from the race, but he did say in an interview on Fox News that Akin has "some real explaining to do" to voters. The super-PAC he helped to start, Crossroads GPS, has spent hundreds of thousands in the Missouri Senate race attacking McCaskill thus far, but a spokesman for the organization wouldn't elaborate on the group's future spending plans in the race.
The quick responses from Republicans across the board indicate the issue is unlikely to die down quickly, and could have a lasting effect on races nationwide as Republicans remain behind with female voters. The most recent poll gives Obama a 9-point lead over Romney with women. Obama has heavily courted female voters.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee came out on the attack as well, with Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) issuing a fundraising email asking supporters to contribute $25 to defeat Akin and calling his comments "revolting."
Akin said on Monday he is staying in the race.
He appeared on a conservative talk radio show hosted by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to apologize for his controversial comments on rape and assert that he would be staying in the race, saying that he hadn't yet received any calls to step down.
"No one has called me and said 'Todd, I think you should drop out,' " he said.
Akin went on to explain that rather than "legitimate rape," he meant "forcible rape," but insisted that he understood that rape can lead to unwanted pregnancies, and explained his mistake as a case of "foot-in-mouth disease."
"I don't know that I'm the only person in public office who suffered from a foot-in-mouth disease here," he said.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released a carefully worded statement that neither called on Akin to resign nor offered him support.
“Congressman Akin’s statements were wrong, offensive, and indefensible. I recognize that this is a difficult time for him, but over the next twenty-four hours, Congressman Akin should carefully consider what is best for him, his family, the Republican Party, and the values that he cares about and has fought for throughout his career in public service," Cornyn said.
Akin looked to have an easy road to the Senate, running in a red-leaning Missouri against a competitor that, by all polls, was lagging behind him. His campaign released a statement in which Akin said he "misspoke" but still stood by his position that abortion, even in the case of rape, is inappropriate.
McCaskill's campaign immediately jumped on the comments, circulating them among reporters and calling them "beyond comprehension" and "offensive."
National party operations shortly followed suit, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee circulating a petition calling for Akin's removal from the House Science and Technology Committee because "someone who believes nonsense like this has no part overseeing science policy."
The first deadline for Akin to withdraw from the race is 5 p.m. Tuesday, and a source familiar with the campaign says there's no indication that he's likely to do that at this point. But Akin could also withdraw by court order on or before Sept. 25 — a deadline far enough away for the GOP to assess whether Akin still has a viable shot at the seat, despite his comments.
It's comments like these, however, that made Akin the favored candidate of Democrats to win the nomination. He's known for off-the-cuff comments that turn into attack-ad-ready sound bites, like when he compared the federal student loan program to cancer, a statement the McCaskill campaign has been using in ads for some time now.
Thus far, however, none of his statements had sparked such a strong response from Republicans nationwide, indicating this could be the comment that Democrats have been waiting for.
— This story was last updated at 1:33 p.m.