WASHINGTON Democrats seized Wednesday on a Republican Senate candidate's comments about pregnancy, looking to regain an upper hand with female voters not only in that state but also in the nationwide presidential campaign.
The candidate, Richard Mourdock of Indiana, apologized Wednesday for what he called the awkwardness of his remarks, in which he defended his opposition to abortion in all cases by saying that even pregnancy caused by rape is the will of God.
Democrats criticized him, saying the remarks were demeaning to women, and they were working to persuade women to turn away from Mourdock as well as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The brouhaha came as both parties wage a high-stakes contest for the support of female voters, a fight given new urgency as Democrats have lost their big lead among women and found President Barack Obama in a neck-and-neck fight for the presidency.
It was unclear whether Democrats would be able to regain their historic advantage nationally among women. Last-minute controversies have a history of affecting close races, but this time most voters already have decided on their candidates. The controversy's impact on persuadable voters could depend on how long the story survives.
"Is this likely to affect a lot of voters? I'm skeptical," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The greatest impact could come in the Indiana Senate race, where Mourdock is fighting to keep the seat now held by Richard Lugar in Republican hands. "Odds are 75 percent it will cost Mourdock the seat," said Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research. "It's going to be something that will dominate local news all week."
The story started in a Senate debate Tuesday night when Mourdock was asked about his opposition to abortion in all cases except when the woman's life is in danger. His opponent, Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., supports abortion rights in cases of rape, incest or saving the woman's life.
"I struggled with it myself for a long time," an emotional Mourdock said. "But I came to realize 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."
Soon after the debate, he and his campaign worked to make sure no one thought he was saying that rape itself was God's will. "God creates life, and that was my point," a campaign statement said. "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."
On Wednesday, Mourdock apologized for giving the impression to anyone that he condoned rape or thought God condoned rape. "I have certainly been humbled by the fact that so many people think that somehow was an interpretation," he said. "I absolutely abhor violence. I abhor any kind of sexual violence."
Romney, who's endorsed Mourdock and appears in a TV ad for him that started airing Monday, distanced himself from Mourdock's remarks. "Gov. Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views," spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. Romney opposes abortion rights, but does support exceptions in cases of rape, incest or to save the woman's life.
He didn't withdraw his endorsement or ask that the ad featuring his endorsement be pulled from Indiana's airwaves.
Democrats hit Mourdock and Romney within moments of the debate and continued Wednesday. In an appearance on "The Tonight Show," Obama said that "rape is rape. It is a crime," and that distinctions offered by Mourdock "don't make any sense to me."
Obama told host Jay Leno that such remarks reflect why politicians, mostly male, shouldn't be making decisions about women's health care, the Associated Press reported. He also said intrusions by politicians are part of what's at stake in the presidential election.