Missouri conservatives say they are rallying around U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin despite his controversial comments about rape because they are outraged that "establishment" Republican Party leaders tried to railroad him out of the race.
A backlash has set in here in Akin's suburban St. Louis congressional district, where supporters said the national party had no right to attempt to force out a duly-elected candidate.
Backers described Akin as the "real deal," a politician fiercely committed to their social causes such as opposition to abortion, and to the Tea Party drive to downsize government.
Akin, 65, has defied widespread calls, including from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, to step aside after he said women's bodies have natural defenses against pregnancy from "legitimate rape." The uproar knocked Romney's campaign off message days before the Republican convention, and major party paymasters pulled millions in campaign advertising for Akin.
The gaffe has put at risk what was considered a likely Republican pickup of a Democratic-held seat in a state becoming more conservative. Republicans need a net gain of four seats in the November election to ensure they gain a Senate majority.
"At first I felt (Akin's comments) were offensive to women and insulting to my intelligence," said Lisa Payne-Naeger, a member of the conservative Missouri Grassroots Coalition, who has an online political radio show. "What changed it for me was the Republican establishment's effort to chop him off at the knees and install one of their own in the race."
Payne-Naeger said she was so angered by the "onslaught" from party leaders that she donated to Akin's campaign on Wednesday.
Nearly two dozen Missouri Republicans interviewed on Wednesday and Thursday, most in the St. Louis area, but some in other parts of the state, expressed similar views.
Akin has seized on this theme, launching a "Help Todd Fight Back Against the Party Bosses" fundraising drive that his campaign said netted $100,000 in small donations this week.
Holding onto the Republican base of support is key to Akin's political survival, although he faces more major obstacles to defeating Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill in November.
"THE REAL DEAL"
Throughout his career as a state representative elected in 1988 and then as a Congressman, Akin has been a staunch Christian and social conservative who has fought abortion and promoted the right to gun ownership.
"Todd Akin is firmly grounded in his Christian beliefs," said Kenneth Williams, Republican committee chairman for Sainte Genevieve County, who said he gave $100 to Akin's campaign on Wednesday. "He's the real deal."
The Congressman's stand on fiscal issues and willingness to buck the party line -- he voted against the unpopular 2008 bank bailout and against President George W. Bush's education reform known as No Child Left Behind -- has also endeared him to the anti-establishment Tea Party movement.
"Akin has real Tea Party credentials," said Bill Hennessy, founder of the St. Louis Tea Party, who lives in Akin's district and has voted for him since 2000.
Hennessy recalled Akin was the only politician who showed up at the group's April 15, 2009 "Tax Day" rally in downtown St. Louis and adhered to an order not to do any politicking.
Akin's ability to straddle America's two main brands of conservatism - fiscal and social - enabled him to garner enough support from Christian conservatives and Tea Party adherents in the Aug. 7 Republican Senate primary to win by 6 points.
Anyone who thinks the congressman may yet exit the race does not know Akin, said John Putnam, Missouri state coordinator for the national Tea Party Patriots group and chairman of the Jasper County Republican party, who has known Akin since 1984.
Patsy Liszewski, who described herself as "just a grandma" and member of the St. Louis Tea Party Coalition, said she would prefer Akin get out of the race.
"But if he stays in I will vote for him and campaign for him because our main goal is to beat Claire McCaskill," she said.
"I support him probably even more than I did before," said Molly Nesham, a home-schooling mother who also teaches at a Christian school and likes Akin's stand on abortion. "He made a mistake and the Republican Party abandoned him."
A key question is whether Akin has so offended women that he cannot convince voters such as Paige Hoff, a self-described "Republican-leaning independent."
"What Todd Akin said was offensive and I'm not minded to vote for him," said the retail assistant as she wandered the main street of St. Louis suburb St. Charles on her day off. "There's no way I'd vote for McCaskill, so I need to see proof Akin can run a serious campaign."
Major Republican groups American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS pulled funding this week and their spokesman Nate Hodson said by email: "We do not have any plans to advertise further in Missouri as long as Todd Akin is in the race."
But University of Missouri's Dow said Republican campaign funding groups will have to decide whether to resume the money if the race is competitive by October.
"They will also have to weigh up whether they want an angry Republican in the Senate, which would be bad for the party," he said.
(Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker)