Will Richard Mourdock's rape remarks hurt Mitt Romney?

The Romney campaign immediately distanced itself from the remarks of Richard Mourdock, a Republican Senate candidate from Indiana. Democrats portrayed the remarks as evidence of an extreme view on abortion and women’s rights.

Michael Conroy/AP
Republican Richard Mourdock, candidate for Indiana's Senate seat, participates in a debate with Democrat Joe Donnelly and Libertarian Andrew Horning in New Albany, Ind., Oct. 23. Mourdock said Tuesday when a woman is impregnated during a rape, 'it's something God intended.' He was asked during the final minutes of the debate whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.

Has Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock just become a big problem for Mitt Romney and the national GOP? That question arises because of a controversial comment on abortion that Mr. Mourdock made in a debate Tuesday night with his Democratic opponent, Rep. Joe Donnelly.

Asked whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest, Mourdock said, “I struggled with 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 is something God intended to happen.”

After the debate, Mourdock clarified his remark, saying that rape is a horrible thing that he does not believe is itself part of a divine plan.

“God creates life, and that was my point,” Mourdock said in a statement. “God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that he does.”

But Democrats seized on his comment and portrayed it as insensitive and evidence of an extreme view on abortion and women’s rights. They also pointed out that Mr. Romney, the GOP presidential nominee, had cut an ad in support of Mourdock this week.

“Richard Mourdock’s rape comments are outrageous and demeaning to women. Unfortunately, they’ve become part and parcel of the modern Republican Party’s platform toward women’s health, as Congressional Republicans like Paul Ryan have worked to outlaw all abortions and even narrow the definition of rape,” Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement following the debate.

The Romney campaign immediately distanced itself from Mourdock’s words, saying they did not reflect its candidate’s views. Romney is antiabortion but does support an exception for cases of rape and incest. His running mate, Representative Ryan, in the past has rejected such an exception.

But Romney aides did not comment as to whether the former Massachusetts governor would still support Mourdock’s Senate bid.

When Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin said in an interview that women’s bodies have ways of suppressing pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape,” the GOP quickly pressured him to withdraw from the race. He refused and remains on the ballot.

With the race between Romney and President Obama so close, it’s a sure thing that Democrats will try to make use of Mourdock’s words. It’s possible they could have some marginal effect on women voters who remain undecided in swing states – a key target for the Obama campaign.

In a survey of swing-state voters, women placed “abortion” and “equal rights” among their top five issues, while men did not, according to a new Gallup analysis of polling data. This helps explain America’s persistent gender gap. If the electorate were purely female, Mr. Obama would lead by eight percentage points, according to Gallup. If it were all male, Romney would lead by 14.

Could Obama attract even more women voters? His strength among females has declined by three percentage points relative to 2008, according to Gallup’s numbers, so it’s possible he could win back women who supported him in the past. But his biggest gender problem is among men: He’s down by seven percentage points among male voters since 2008.

In that context, it’s possible that Mourdock’s words will have more effect on tight Senate races. In states such as Massachusetts, where Democrat Elizabeth Warren is battling incumbent Sen. Scott Brown (R), Democrats undoubtedly will run ads saying a vote for the GOP is a vote for a chamber controlled by politicians such as Mourdock.

As for Mourdock himself, the current state treasurer is locked in a surprisingly close race with Representative Donnelly in a GOP-leaning state. Donnelly also opposes abortion, but he supports an exemption for rape and incest victims. Mourdock, supported by tea party groups, ousted longtime Indiana GOP Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. He leads Donnelly by five percentage points in a recent Rasmussen poll.

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