Has The Damage Been Done For Todd Akin?

U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin apologized for his remarks about rape and pregnancy, but calls have intensified for him to withdraw. Plus, a new e-book claims the Obama campaign is in a constant state of conflict. Guest host Viviana Hurtado speaks with Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America and Joy-Ann Reid of TheGrio.com.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

I'm Viviana Hurtado and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we head to Africa, where Ethiopia is looking at an uncertain future after the death of its prime minister. But first, a race for Senate here in the U.S. is up in the air after some controversial remarks about rape and abortion.

And a new ebook says the president's reelection campaign is plagued by in-fighting. Here to talk about the latest in the world of politics, we're joined by Joy-Ann Reid. She's the managing editor of the news website TheGrio.com. She's also a frequent contributor to MSNBC and the Miami Herald.

Also with us, Janice Crouse. She's with the conservative group Concerned Women for America. She's also a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. Welcome to you both, ladies.

JANICE CROUSE: Thank you.

JOY-ANN REID: Hi. Great to be here.

HURTADO: So I want to start with Representative Todd Akin. He's a Republican and wants to represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate, but he outraged people from all parties when he asked - when he was asked about his position on abortion in the case of rape. So let's take a listen to what he said originally in the interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

REPRESENTATIVE TODD AKIN: It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something. You know, I think there should be some punishment but the punishment ought to be in the rapist and not attacking the child.

HURTADO: He's since backed down from these comments. He says that he, quote, "used the words the wrong way," unquote. He added that rape is never legitimate and that, quote, "it's an evil act, it's committed by violent predators," unquote. So Janice Crouse, we're going to begin with you. I need to ask you if the damage is just too big to fix with an apology.

CROUSE: Well, there's no question he shot himself in the foot, you know. It's a very unfortunate statement. It was very insensitive. But the sad thing about it is that those remarks contrast very dramatically to a man whose life has been full of help and compassion for women who've been raped or other women in crisis pregnancies or unwanted pregnancies. So the really...

HURTADO: Can you expand that? How has...

CROUSE: He has been a pro-life advocate his whole career. He's been a man who has worked in crisis pregnancy centers. He's reached out to women and helped women in numerous ways in his private life. So it's very unfortunate that he's one who used words so insensitively, and he apologized for them, of course, and retracted from them.

But I think the bigger question for me is this whole business of the politics of personal destruction. We have a very, I think, appalling double-standard in this country where Republicans are held to these standards that are appropriate but somehow the Democrats get a pass. Vice President Biden, for instance, most recently and most - in the headlines talked about you're going to put those, put everybody in chains.

Well, you know, first place, as a Southerner I resent a person from Delaware using the term y'all in such a patronizing way. But that was very racially insensitive, just as racially insensitive as Mr. Akin's remarks were insensitive to women in a rape situation.

HURTADO: Joy, I'm going to let you jump in here. So let me - I'd like you to respond to what Janice had to say about Democrats getting a pass in a way that Republicans don't. And do you think that, you know, how do you think this comment of Todd Akin is going to play out in the larger Republican strategy for the 2012 election?

REID: Well, first of all, I think it's interesting that y'all is now considered a pejorative term. I remember Mitt Romney, who was from Utah...

CROUSE: Oh, it's not.

REID: ...and Massachusetts saying y'all and that he likes cheesy grits when he got to the South. But that aside, I think that what's interesting about the Akin controversy is that in fact I think he was actually being honest with what he said in the first place. He may not have liked the way he phrased it, looking back on it in the political light of day, but this belief system really has been around since the '80s.

You've had conservatives - movement conservatives - who simply believe that rape is no excuse for abortion - rape or incest. You had in the past Senate candidates like Sharron Angle saying that a woman who's raped should just make lemonade out of lemons and go ahead and have the baby.

This has been a part of the social conservative movement for a long time, for all of my adult lifetime, that essentially conservatives don't believe in the rape exception and they've had to sort of sugarcoat that because it's bad politics when you need to have female voters support you. But that is a fact. Paul Ryan doesn't believe in the rape exception.

Mitt Romney, who's changed his mind a few times on abortion, now essentially agrees with Paul Ryan and the conservative movement. I just read a blog post the other day defending Akin and saying, look, you know, that his mom was a product of a rape and there are these websites online where people are arguing that the children of rape ought to be brought into the world just like anyone else.

So I don't think that he was actually misspeaking. I think he just was lifting the veil on an existing belief system, and now it's uncomfortable politically.

HURTADO: And very quickly, Joy, how is this playing out in the polling with women?

REID: Well, what's interesting, there hasn't been an extensive poll yet because this is still a relatively new story. There was an overnight poll. He had been up about seven points over Claire McCaskill, Todd Akin had been. Now the latest overnight poll from Public Policy Polling shows it a statistical dead heat. He's up 44-43.

I think you're going to need about another week of polling to see it and parse it out among the various demographic groups.

HURTADO: And just to be clear, Romney's campaign has made clear that they would not oppose abortion in the case of rape.

REID: Right, but Paul Ryan does and Paul Ryan co-sponsored bills with Todd Akin that contain no exception for rape or incest, so it's - you know, they're changing positions and it's interesting that Romney has gotten Ryan to start flip-flopping because that was his belief up until like two days ago.

HURTADO: President Obama addressed this controversy in a White House press briefing yesterday. He ripped Akin for the comments and he also tried to draw a distinction between the parties on the issue of women's health. Let's listen to what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think the underlying notion that we should be making decisions on behalf of women for their healthcare decisions or qualifying forcible rape versus non-forcible rape, I think those are broader issues and that is a significant difference in approach between me and the other party.

HURTADO: Just before the president's clip we talked about what the Romney campaign's position is. Janice - and Mitt Romney has in fact denounced Todd Akin's remarks. The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has said that it will not spend any money to help elect him. So do you think, Janice, that this is going to be a fatal blow to Republican hopes to take the Senate?

CROUSE: Definitely not. You know, I disagree with the idea that there is a veil and that the veil is lifted with Akin's remarks. The position that a woman has the option of carrying her child to term when she's been raped is a very legitimate position and there is disagreement about that position within the Republican Party, but some very fine people hold that view.

And there are some wonderful people who are alive because of rapes and are wonderful people and have very articulately and persuasively talked about the benefit of life, that they are appreciative of their mother giving to them. I think it's laughable that President Obama talks about men not having any business interfering in the healthcare decisions of women when his whole Obamacare does exactly that, requires people of faith who disagree with contraception, for instance, as a matter of faith, to disregard their strongly held beliefs in order to participate in paying for abortions and paying for contraception and so forth. So the idea that men aren't involved in women's decisions is a very laughable position to take.

Obviously people in Congress do have a right to make their positions known on these policy issues.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're looking at the election and the hot races with our regular political contributors, Janice Crouse of the group Concerned Women for America, and Joy-Ann Reid of TheGrio.com.

So Joy, to you. Let's talk about the presidential race and the race for campaign dollars. Although President Obama's campaign officially raised more money last month than Governor Romney's, the groups supporting the Republican ticket are still outpacing the Democrats. So how do you think the president can compete?

REID: Well, I mean, I think it's pretty clear that the groups that are supporting Mitt Romney, including the financial services industries, Wall Street.

They are supporting the candidate who they feel will, you know, put out favorable policies to them. You do have Republicans who want to do things like privatizing social security. That's a big Wall Street want, so of course, they're pouring money into the candidates who've said that they're interested in privatizing social security and Medicare. The insurance industry would love to see Medicare privatized and turned into a voucher program.

So people are basically paying for the kind of government they want. What that means for the Obama campaign, which slightly out-raised the Romney campaign, proper, last month, but just was inundated because the outside groups on the Republican side are just far outpacing the effort on the Democratic side. So there's two to one, right now, spending advantage for Mitt Romney.

What the Obama campaign is going to have to do is see if they can go back to their small donor base and do what they did in 2008, which means have an overwhelming response from individual donors. Now, that's going to take enthusiasm, and I think one of the things that's happening is, as Republican policy is unveiled - I mean, one of the things we just talked about in the Republican platform, there is no rape exception for their abortion clinic.

HURTADO: Which is being written now.

REID: It's being written now, so the bottom line is, as these things become unveiled, I think you're starting to see the groups that Obama's counting on, young women, younger voters and minorities saying, wait a minute. Maybe we do need to get engaged. And that's what they're counting on.

HURTADO: And, Janice, Joy was just talking about small donors and how the president is mobilizing in that direction now. As far as the Romney campaign is concerned, some conservative critics suggested that, in the Romney campaign, the lack of small donors reflected less grassroots support for Governor Romney, so we're headed to Tampa, we're headed to the base that's going to be Evangelical Christians and others.

Do you think that, now, that's still a valid concern?

CROUSE: No, it's not. I think the Democrats should be very worried right now, because I think money shows enthusiasm and what we've seen since president - or candidate Romney chose as his vice president candidate, Paul Ryan, it increased enthusiasm that has, I think, blown them away. I don't think they anticipated quite the enthusiasm.

At the same time, President Obama has seen his support drop away and even Newsweek - for crying out loud - has a cover story this week telling the president that it's time for him to go, so I think they should be very concerned about the lack of enthusiasm for the Obama Campaign at the grassroots level, as well as in the media, where they're taking the gloves off that they've had previously.

HURTADO: And, Joy, speaking of President Obama, there's a new eBook that's been released from Politico and it just talks about all kinds of rumors and salacious gossip that those of us who are political junkies like to hear about and suspect. But, Joy, what do you make about all of the revelations of conflict and in-fighting between the White House and the president's campaign?

REID: I think the news media wants it to be close and, right now, it doesn't look like it's going to be as close because Romney's got some issues with states, so stirring the pot and making the Obama team look troubled - good for the news biz.

HURTADO: Joy-Ann Reid is the managing editor of the news website, TheGrio.com, and she's a frequent contributor to MSNBC. She joined us from our New York studio. And Janice Crouse is the director and a senior fellow with Concerned Women for America. She's a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.

Ladies, thank you so much for your insight.

CROUSE: Thank you.

REID: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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