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.
Mourdock's comment in a Tuesday night debate came in answer to a question on when abortion should or should not be allowed. 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.
In Wisconsin, former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who faces Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, called Mourdock's comments "really sad."
"I've got a wife and two daughters and six granddaughters," he said in an interview. "Anything dealing with rape against women is uncalled for. Period. No tolerance whatsoever."
Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, told CNN that his continued support of Mourdock "depends on what he does." The Arizona lawmaker who was the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, said he wants to see "if he apologizes and says he misspoke and he was wrong and asks people to forgive him. It's when you don't own up to it that people will not believe in you."
Mourdock's debate comment recalled GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin's remark in August about rape and pregnancy. The Missouri congressman said women's bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." Republicans, led by Romney, called for Akin to abandon the race, but he refused and is pressing ahead against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Romney and several Republicans have been moderating their positions in the campaign's closing days, making their final pitch to the independents, undecideds and female voters whose votes could tip both the presidential election and majority control of the Senate. Recent national polls have shown Obama's edge with female voters shrinking to single digits.
Mourdock's comment rattled the races, including his own surprisingly competitive contest with Rep. Joe Donnelly. Mourdock had prevailed over six-term Sen. Richard Lugar in a bitter GOP primary in May.
Democrats, who have pushed the narrative of a Republican "war on women," eagerly made Mourdock's comment an issue for Romney and Senate GOP candidates. The Democrats are increasingly hopeful that they can hold their slim Senate advantage despite defending 23 seats to the GOP's 10.
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."
Said spokeswoman Jen Psaki of Romney: "It is perplexing that he wouldn't demand to have that ad taken down."
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.
At a news conference Wednesday, the state treasurer 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."
Another tea party-backed candidate, Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., said last week that medical advances mean women no longer die in pregnancies and the exceptions for abortion are unnecessary. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists called that comment inaccurate since "pregnancy is not a risk-free life event." The organization said more than 600 women die each year from pregnancy or childbirth-related reasons.
As for Mourdock, the National Republican Senatorial Committee stood by its candidate and argued that his words were being taken out of context.
"Richard and I, along with millions of Americans -- including even Joe Donnelly -- believe that life is a gift from God. To try and construe his words as anything other than a restatement of that belief is irresponsible and ridiculous," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the committee.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said it is "incredibly irresponsible for anyone to take what Richard said about his views on life to demean his opposition to the detestable act of rape."
Cornyn had criticized Akin in August and called on him to abandon the Missouri race at a time when the GOP had a chance to put a replacement candidate on the ballot. Republicans have no opportunity now to make a change 13 days to the election in Indiana.
This month, the Republican Senatorial Committee has spent more than $1.2 million on ads criticizing Donnelly. The Republican-favoring group Crossroads GPS invested nearly $1.1 million on Wednesday to run ads against the Democrat.
In the most competitive Senate races, however, Republicans were quick to react negatively.
In Arizona, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake's campaign said his "pro-life position has always included exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother, so he does not agree with some of the comments made by other candidates on this issue."
Still, Flake's rival, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, tried to use the firestorm over Mourdock's remark in the Arizona race.
"Jeff Flake's record is in lockstep with the ignorant and dangerous comments and positions we've seen come from U.S. Senate candidates across the country," said Elizabeth Kenigsberg, a Carmona campaign spokeswoman.
In Nevada, Republican Sen. Dean Heller also disagreed with the comments from Mourdock. Heller is in a close race with Democrat Shelley Berkley.
Associated Press writers Andrew Miga and Kevin Freking in Washington, and Bob Salsberg in Boston contributed to this report.