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Akin imbroglio is bad news for Republicans

By Tom Cohen, CNN
August 22, 2012 -- Updated 1923 GMT (0323 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The controversy puts GOP's social conservatism in the campaign spotlight
  • It detracts from Mitt Romney's desired focus on economic issues
  • Analyst: Democrats will use Akin's hardline stance as a scare tactic
  • Forecasters downgrade GOP chances of winning the Missouri Senate race

Washington (CNN) -- If there is any silver lining for Republicans from the Todd Akin imbroglio, no one seems to have found it yet.

Election forecasters have downgraded the Missouri congressman's chances of winning the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Claire McCaskill because of his incendiary comments on rape and pregnancy.

The story dominates political coverage in the week before the Republican National Convention, forcing certain GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to repeatedly address it when he wanted to focus on convincing Americans why he would be a better president than Barack Obama.

Even more, the controversy surrounding Akin's remarks on "legitimate" rape has forced Republicans to publicly confront the 15,000-pound elephant in their living room: the party's internal rift between traditional fiscal conservatives such as Romney and the increasingly influential social conservatives of the religious right such as Akin.

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Defiant Akin staying in race

Republican officials told CNN on condition of not being identified that the Akin controversy hurts on several fronts. It decreases the chances of capturing McCaskill's Senate seat, which is crucial to GOP hopes of winning control of the chamber, they said.

Akin takes on 'party bosses,' insists he 'can win this race'

At the same time, the brouhaha shifts the national discussion to divisive social issues that could repel swing voters rather than economic issues that could attract them in a climate of high unemployment and stumbling recovery, the GOP officials said.

"No party wants to be defined by its most extreme element," noted Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "That's exactly what has happened to Republicans. The danger is that voters will see the party as out of step and not see Akin as an aberration."

The debate that Republicans sought to focus on economic issues such as the budget deficit and tax reform now covers the full spectrum of GOP policy, including the conservative stance on abortion stated by Akin and included in the party platform for next week's convention, noted Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University.

"When the hard-core conservative policy differences of the Republican Party are emphasized, it really reduces the GOP ability to win over independents, undecided and even Democrats disappointed with Obama," Schiller said.

West agreed, saying the impact could turn the November choice "into an up-or-down vote on the two party visions, and Democrats like that because it means the election is no longer a referendum on high unemployment."

The Republican reaction to the Akin controversy shows the level of concern.

Top leaders including Romney, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell and five past and present Republican senators from Missouri such as John Danforth and Christopher "Kit" Bond called for Akin to drop out of the race.

'Legitimate rape' reaction, from the Congo to black crickets

The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and the American Crossroads super PAC that backs GOP candidates both announced that they will stop spending money on the Missouri Senate race. Even tea party groups that have backed Akin in the past said he should step aside for the good of the party and the conservative cause.

Akin, who won a tough primary battle this month, has apologized for his comments but also stubbornly defied the pressure to get out of the election. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he described the race as a "cause" with the goal of strengthening the anti-abortion voice in Washington.

"I believe that there is a place for people to look for a message that's big enough to deal with the size of America's challenges today," Akin said in an interview Tuesday on conservative commentator Sean Hannity's radio show. "And the defense of the unborn and the deep respect for life which underlie our American culture are very important, and I don't think we should run away from them."

Since the controversy erupted Sunday, two of the top nonpartisan political handicappers altered their ratings of the Senate race in Missouri. The Cook Political Report moved its ranking from "toss-up" to "likely Democrat," and the Rothenberg Political Report changed its assessment from "toss-up/tilt Republican" to pure "toss-up."

"This firestorm that Todd Akin has created for himself has engulfed not only him but we think any chance whatsoever of being able to salvage this race as long as he's in this race," Steve Law, the president and CEO of American Crossroads, said Wednesday. "I think he unfortunately doesn't recognize it yet, but he's dealt a mortal blow to his candidacy."

According to Republican officials, a failure to wrest McCaskill's seat from the Democrats would mean GOP candidates must win in Montana, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Massachusetts to seize the majority.

Opinion: Raped, pregnant and ordeal not over

In traditionally liberal Massachusetts, incumbent Republican Scott Brown is in a tough re-election battle with Democrat Elizabeth Warren, the consumer's rights advocate from the Obama administration.

Not surprisingly, Brown was the first national Republican figure to call for Akin to get out of the Missouri race. He also made a public plea Tuesday for the Republican platform at next week's convention to be more flexible on the abortion issue than the current plank that backs a "human life amendment" banning abortion with no stated exceptions.

"If we are to grow and succeed in all parts of this great nation, we must be a 'big-tent' party," Brown wrote in a letter to Priebus, the RNC chairman. "There are people of goodwill on both sides of the abortion issue, and we need to send a message to voters that there is room in the Republican Party for differing perspectives."

Analysts Schiller and West agreed that Brown was trying to separate himself from the Republican image presented by Akin of rigid opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.

The Democratic message will be that "if you give Republicans control in the Senate, guys like Todd Akin are going to be controlling your life, controlling your bodies," Schiller said. "This is going to be a turning point for the Democrats. Instead of making this a localized race, they are going to scare voters with a picture of Todd Akin."

In response to the Akin controversy, Romney made clear that his policy would allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother, which is consistent with his Mormon faith and the stance of former Republican presidents such as George W. Bush.

Opinion: Wake up -- it's not just Akin

However, it differs from both the party platform endorsed Tuesday and the personal views of his running mate, conservative Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a devout Catholic who has cast repeated House votes opposing abortion.

The Akin controversy ensured that such a discrepancy received major media attention. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman known for his economic expertise, has been asked about it in every exchange with journalists this week.

"I'm proud of my record" opposing abortion, he said Wednesday. "Mitt Romney is going to be president, and the president sets policy. His policy is exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. I'm comfortable with it because it's a good step in the right direction."

In an interview Tuesday with a CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh, Ryan was asked about legislation he sponsored that initially included a reference to "forcible rape" -- the same point Akin claimed he was trying to make but wrongly referred to as "legitimate" rape.

The issue involves the longstanding insistence by abortion opponents that women falsely claim they were raped in order to get an abortion. In his initial remarks and follow-up explanations this week, Akin has backed off by admitting he was wrong to try to distinguish rape in any way or suggest that women who were forcibly raped had a biological response that impeded pregnancy.

Ryan sought to cut off the issue, telling the interviewer: "Rape is rape, period. End of story."

Romney, meanwhile, has been accused of flip-flopping on the abortion issue in his career. He expressed a more moderate view when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 and then adopted a more conservative stance in launching his first presidential campaign in 2006.

The Romney campaign managed to avoid damage on the issue during the primary campaign, even when conservative rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich raised questions about Romney's conservative credentials.

Opinion: GOP policy is the scandal, not just Akin's comments

Now, any campaign efforts to avoid discussing the volatile abortion issue have been rendered moot by Akin's incendiary remarks.

"He's simply the poster boy for the longstanding position of the GOP on abortion," Schiller said. "That has now become inescapable for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan."

Anti-abortion activists acknowledge that a candidate espousing a rigid anti-abortion stance with no exceptions for rape, incest or the mother's health was less likely to win in today's political environment.

Advocating exceptions has "been mostly for political viability and expediency" rather than out of any serious debate among anti-abortion activists, said Ralph Reed, who leads the conservative Faith and Family Coalition.

At the same time, Reed noted that abortions in response to rape and incest are a "statistically insignificant portion of abortions as a whole, even as they represent a significant national tragedy."

The focus on GOP calls for no-exception abortion bans, Reed said, is "an attempt by the left to raise a bogeyman and by the media to raise 'gotcha questions' with candidates who are pro-life."

iReport: 'Rape is rape' -- Akin should step down

CNN's Dana Bash, Paul Steinhauser and Dan Gilgoff contributed to this report.

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