By Kathleen Hunter and Julie Bykowicz
WASHINGTON — Democrats are attacking Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock for saying that pregnancy caused by rape is something “God intended” and not a situation that justifies an abortion.
The comment Tuesday night is roiling a tight race less than two weeks before the election, and threatens to spill over into the presidential contest. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has endorsed Mourdock and appeared in campaign ads for him. Romney quickly distanced himself from the comments.
“Governor Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock’s comments, and they do not reflect his views,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an e-mail. Asked whether Romney will withdraw his endorsement of Mourdock or insist that an ad that features a joint appearance of the two candidates be taken off the air, Saul said Romney’s campaign “still supports him.”
Mourdock apologized Wednesday for his “less than fully articulate use of words,” while saying he stands by his position. At a press conference Wednesday at the Indiana Republican Party headquarters in Indianapolis, he said repeatedly that he views life as “precious” and that he abhors violence including rape. He said Democrats have begun to “twist” his words.
“For those who want to kind of twist the comments — I believe that’s what’s wrong with Washington these days,” Mourdock said. “It’s win at any cost. Let’s make up issues when we can’t find any real ones.”
He said his campaign is “moving on” and that he believes Indiana voters are, too.
An anti-tax tea party favorite, Mourdock defeated six-term Republican incumbent Richard Lugar by 20 percentage points in a May primary with an anti-tax, anti-Washington message.
Mourdock’s remark Tuesday night came in response to a voter- submitted question toward the end of a debate with his opponents, Rep. Joe Donnelly, D, and Libertarian candidate Andrew Horning.
“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” said Mourdock, the state’s treasurer. “And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Mourdock choked up as he spoke about God at the debate, and again at his press conference this morning as he said “life is incredibly precious.” He said he views saving a woman’s life as the only acceptable reason for abortion.
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, said rape victims should have access to abortions. Mourdock said Wednesday morning that he has a policy difference with some fellow Republicans, including Romney, on abortion.
Amid the fallout from the debate, Mourdock called New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte to cancel her planned trip to Indiana to campaign with him.
“I didn’t want her to be dragged into a situation today,” he told reporters.
Ayotte spokesman Jeff Grappone said in an e-mail Wednesday that the senator “disagrees with Treasurer Mourdock’s comments, which do not represent her views.”
Democrats pounced on Mourdock’s comment after the debate ended, highlighting his ties to Romney.
Jen Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman for President Obama, told reporters traveling to a campaign rally in Iowa on Wednesday day that the president thought Mourdock’s comments were “outrageous and demeaning to women.”
“This is a reminder that a Republican Congress working with a Republican President Mitt Romney would feel that women should not be able to make choices about their own health care,” Psaki said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Obama campaign officials and the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge were among those who reminded voters on Twitter of Romney’s backing of Mourdock. The DCCC asked its 85,580 Twitter followers to “sign and retweet” a petition telling Romney to “denounce Richard Mourdock for his disgusting anti- woman views.”
American Bridge cut a video combining Romney’s endorsement of Mourdock and the Senate candidate’s statements of his own views, beginning with the pregnancy from rape is “something God intended” remark. The Democratic National Committee made a similar video.
Following the debate, Mourdock clarified that his point was “God creates life.”
“God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that he does,” Mourdock said in a statement, adding, “for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick.”
He echoed those statements at his press conference Wednesday.
Donnelly issued a statement calling his opponent’s comments “shocking” and saying that “it is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape.”
Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, criticized Romney’s response as “tepid,” while Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, called Mourdock’s remarks “callous, insulting and completely out of touch.” Both groups called on Romney to rescind his endorsement of Mourdock.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Patty Murray of Washington described Mourdock’s comments as “heinous” and called on Romney to demand that the ad in which Romney backs Mourdock be taken down.
“While Mitt Romney is rightly distancing himself from Richard Mourdock today, his ad endorsing Mourdock’s extreme candidacy continues to air in Indiana,” Murray said in a statement. “If Mitt Romney is serious about repudiating these heinous views on rape, he will take down this ad immediately.”
Romney voiced his support for Mourdock in an ad that began airing Oct. 22 in Evansville, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
Obama’s re-election campaign has aired ads saying Romney would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Romney’s campaign, which wants to focus on the economy, is running an ad in some Virginia markets featuring a woman who says Romney “doesn’t oppose contraception at all” and “thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life.”
Mourdock made his remark two months after Missouri Senate Republican candidate Todd Akin said that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy. Akin, a U.S. House member seeking to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill, D, later apologized while rejecting calls from fellow Republicans to withdraw from the Missouri race.
The Indiana contest is among the most closely watched in the Senate, along with races in Massachusetts, Missouri and Virginia. Republicans must hold all five of their competitive seats in the Nov. 6 election and pick up four seats to win a majority in the Senate, which Democrats now control 53-47.
Mourdock’s general election contest with Donnelly is rated as a toss-up by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
The most recent Howey-DePauw poll, taken in Indiana Sept. 19-23, showed the race in a dead heat, with Donnelly leading Mourdock 40 percent to 38 percent among 800 likely voters, within the poll’s margin of error.