The Republican national convention was planned as a festival of unity to formally anoint Mitt Romney as challenger to President Barack Obama, but instead it will open Monday with the party in turmoil over a fellow Republican's startling remarks about abortion for victims of "legitimate rape."
What's more, the always sensitive abortion issue has shined a light on differences between Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, who was chosen as vice presidential candidate less than two weeks ago.
Romney does not oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest or if it will save the mother's life, while Ryan opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest.
That divide reflects the party's fundamental difficulties in trying to accommodate the ultra-conservative ideologies of an increasingly powerful base of evangelical Christians and low-tax, small-government tea party adherents.
The latest uproar began when Republican Congressman Todd Akin, who is running for a Senate seat from Missouri, set off an explosion with his response to a radio interviewer's question about abortion rights for rape victims.
"It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," said Akin, who, like Ryan, opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
The Republican establishment — Romney and Ryan included — denounced Akin's remarks and demanded he withdraw from the race.
Akin has refused, insisting he will stay in the contest against Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat whose seat is seen as key to Republican hopes to gain majority control of the Senate.
With the Nov. 6 election less than three months away, polls show Romney and Obama locked in a virtual tie heading into their party conventions.
Romney was trying to steer the subject to energy Thursday, traveling from Arkansas to New Mexico to discuss what aides cast as a comprehensive energy plan that would hinge on opening up more areas for offshore oil drilling, including in the mid-Atlantic, where it is currently banned.
Romney's campaign says his strategy would achieve energy independence by 2020.
Meanwhile, Obama's hopes for re-election continue to feel a heavy drag from the weak economic recovery and the near meltdown of the U.S. financial system in late 2008, shortly before he won his first term in the White House. Unemployment remains high at 8.3 percent.
The economy and jobs, voters tell pollsters, are the top issues in the election.
Romney, who amassed a quarter-billion dollar fortune as leader of a private equity company, says his success in the world of big business is needed to heal the economy. Polls show more voters trust Romney's stewardship for revving up the recovery.
While polls show Romney and Obama tied overall, the latest Associated Press-GFK poll shows Obama with a commanding lead as the candidate who better "understands the problems of people like you," 51 percent to 36 percent for Romney. Some 50 percent see him as a stronger leader than Romney.
Obama also has a big lead among women voters. They would be most dramatically affected if Republicans in Congress were able to pass a law making abortion illegal. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that abortion was a legal right. Opponents have fought unsuccessfully ever since to overturn that ruling.
The growing power of the wing of the Republican party that would deny abortion to victims of rape and incest might drive away moderate voters who had been leaning toward Romney's message as a businessman who can fix the economy.
"There's a good chance that moderate voters who backed Romney on the economy and were willing to overlook the party's stand on social issues now will have a lot harder time voting Republican," said Melody Crowder-Meyer, a political scientist who studies voter attitudes at Sewanee: The University of the South.
Crowder-Meyer said Akin's position on abortion also draws attention to that of Ryan, who has co-sponsored legislation with the congressman to deny abortions to rape and incest victims.
That appeared to be worrying Ryan as well.
Speaking to a Pennsylvania television station, the vice presidential candidate emphasized anew that Romney is at the top of the Republican ticket.
"I'm proud of my pro-life record. And I stand by my pro-life record in Congress. It's something I'm proud of. But Mitt Romney is the top of the ticket, and Mitt Romney will be president and he will set the policy of the Romney administration," Ryan said.
That still leaves Romney open to questions about his changed position on abortion. When he ran for governor of the politically moderate state of Massachusetts, Romney supported abortion rights. As the presidential candidate of an increasingly conservative Republican party, he doesn't.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.