Richard Mourdock, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Indiana, said in a debate on Tuesday that "even when life begins with that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen."
The remark drew criticism from his Democratic opponent, congressman Joe Donnelly, as well as from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's camp - even as Mourdock defended his words.
During the debate in New Albany, Indiana, Mourdock, Donnelly and Libertarian candidate Andrew Horning were asked about their views on abortion.
"The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother," Mourdock said. "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 God intended to happen."
Mourdock, the state treasurer who is a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, ousted longtime Senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary earlier this year. He is locked in a tight race with Donnelly ahead of the Nov. 6 election.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz called Mourdock's comments "outrageous and demeaning to women."
Donnelly said that rape "is a heinous and violent crime in every instance."
"The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in, does not intend for rape to happen - ever," Donnelly said in a statement after the debate, using the nickname for Indiana residents. "What Mr. Mourdock said is shocking, and it is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape."
Mourdock issued a statement after the debate that said: "God creates life, and that was my point. God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that He does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick."
Romney, who on Monday launched statewide ads endorsing Mourdock, distanced himself on Tuesday from the remark by his fellow Republican. "Governor Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Republicans need a net gain of four seats to gain control of the U.S. Senate from the Democrats, or three if Romney wins the White House. Republicans began 2012 in a strong position, but have suffered some self-inflicted wounds.
In Missouri, Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin prompted an uproar by saying women's bodies have defenses against pregnancy after "legitimate rape," and now trails in his race.
A September Howey-DePauw poll put Donnelly up by 2 percentage points over Mourdock, 40 to 38 percent, with 7 percent for Horning.(Writing by Corrie MacLaggan; Additional reporting by Sam Youngman; Editing by Will Dunham)RECOMMENDED: Romney vs. Obama: 5 ways their views differ on women