McCaskill avoids Akin attacks in hopes of keeping him in the race

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Democrats are staying largely mum about Rep. Todd Akin's (R-Mo.) controversial comments on rape, showing their awareness it's in the senator's best interest if he stays in the race.

McCaskill's odds of reelection are much higher if Akin remains the nominee, and they go down considerably if Republicans get their way and swap him with what might be a more competitive candidate.

And Democratic pushback against the most recent poll from the GOP-leaning firm Rasmussen, which showed McCaskill up by 10 points over Akin, indicates as much, as does the senator's reluctance to mention her rival's controversial comments on the campaign trail.

Kenneth Warren, a professor of political science at Saint Louis University, noted McCaskill's silence on that issue.

"Big time she has, she's even been sympathetic with his plight," he said, adding "I think she's silent right now because I think she's praying that Todd Akin does not drop out, because it's her only chance of winning. She is not popular in this state."

The first-term senator was considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats this cycle, but Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" changed that perception. Republicans only need a net gain of four seats — if President Obama wins reelection — in order to gain control of the Senate and have been heavily targeting McCaskill. They are pressuring Akin to resign as nominee.

McCaskill, meanwhile, has indicated she wants Akin to stay in the race.

"I think it would be a radical thing to try to force someone who had won an election honestly off the ballot just because you think you want to pick another candidate. I think that's wrong," McCaskill told a St. Louis television station earlier this week.

And Democrats were quick to push back against Thursday's poll, saying Rasmussen has a conservative bias and is in cahoots with GOP party leadership in trying to pressure Akin out of the race.

“Everyone knows that Rasmussen is a tool of the Republican establishment in Washington,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee press secretary Shripal Shah told The Hill.

A McCaskill campaign aide added that “it’s just not in line with what we’re seeing in our internal polling.”

“There’s a concerted [GOP] effort to get Todd Akin to bow out,” he said. “So it’s quite a coincidence that this poll came out right after someone in his campaign said he would re-evaluate if he was down by 7 to 9 percent ... we were just out [polling] in the field yesterday and it showed we’re in a dead heat.”

And McCaskill herself tweeted: "Rasmussen poll made me laugh out loud. If anyone believes that, I just turned 29. Sneaky stuff."

The senator has largely stayed away from Akin's controversial comments on the campaign trail. In stops this week, which were scheduled before Akin's comments were made, she focused on veterans' issues and barely mentioned the controversy — at one point joking about how "boring" the race has been lately, but nothing more. Though Democrats sent out a flurry of fundraising emails based on the comments on Monday, that has largely died down, and no new ads or attacks focused on Akin have been launched thus far.

Missouri Republican operative Neal Etheridge noted that "the Democrats, to their credit, identified Todd Akin as a loose cannon, as someone who would make this kind of mistake, and would be the weaker candidate against McCaskill."

“Their greatest fear today is that Akin will drop out,” he added.

Akin's remarks that pregnancy from "legitimate rape" is rare because "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down" were widely considered to be a death knell to his campaign, and prominent Republicans nationwide spent the better part of this week trying to convince him to step down to preserve their chances at taking the seat this fall. The National Republican Senatorial Committee said it would pull its funds from the race if he remains the nominee, and on Tuesday, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney called on Akin to withdraw. Several other senators and prominent conservatives have echoed the call.

But Akin has persisted, launching a grassroots fundraising effort and reframing his campaign as one of an underdog fighting against "party bosses." And his persistence could be McCaskill's best shot at the seat.

During the GOP primary, it became clear Akin was the party's weakest candidate, with polls showing his primary rivals Sarah Steelman and John Brunner routinely leading McCaskill by a larger margin than Akin. That's partly why the McCaskill campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent money on ads touting Akin's conservative credentials — to help ensure that they had their favored opponent in the general election.

Even with his win in the primary, McCaskill still had an uphill battle in a red-leaning state until Akin's comments on Sunday. At that point, the race shifted and the nonpartisan Cook Report changed the contest from a toss-up to likely Democratic.

A chorus of Republicans have said both privately and publicly that if Akin stays in the race, lacking the monetary and technical support of the party establishment, there's no way he can win.

Akin, however, has shown no signs of budging. His campaign said that the new poll indicates not how much the controversy has hurt him, but rather how weak McCaskill is as a candidate.

"If she can't break fifty percent after a week like this, Democrats should ask Claire to step down. Todd is in this race to win; we will close this gap and win in November with the support of the grassroots in Missouri and across America," said Akin campaign manager Perry Akin.

— Jonathan Easley contributed

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