Akin's Rape Comment Gives Democrats Ammunition

Democrats are trying to use GOP Rep. Todd Akin's comments about rape and abortion to influence the presidential race and other contests across the country. Mitt Romney does not want to spend his time talking about Akin, but events have forced him.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. By now, people across the nation have heard remarks by Missouri Republican Todd Akin. He says he misspoke about pregnancy and rape, but his words shifted the polls in his race for a vital U.S. Senate seat. Now Democrats want to be sure the remarks have a national effect. Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: All year long, Democrats have accused Republicans of a war on women. It's been fought over contraception, equal pay, anything that Democrats think could keep women's votes in the blue column. Congressman Todd Akins's reference to "legitimate rape" gave President Obama a new weapon.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think the underlying notion that we should be making decisions on behalf of women for their health care 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.

SHAPIRO: That was Monday. On Wednesday, the president brought up Akin again at a fundraiser in New York. He said: This is an individual who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology but somehow missed science class. Mitt Romney doesn't want to spend his time talking about this, but events have forced him. He told a New Hampshire TV station...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

MITT ROMNEY: His words with regards to rape are not words that I can defend, that we can defend, or that we could defend him.

INSKEEP: Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki says it's no profile in courage to condemn the phrase "legitimate rape." This week, she pointed out, Republicans put a line into the party platform opposing abortion in the case of rape or incest. And further, she said aboard Air Force One...

JEN PSAKI: Paul Ryan worked with Todd Akin on legislation in Congress that would redefine what rape is.

SHAPIRO: She's referring to proposed legislation that included the phrase "forcible rape." Paul Ryan tried to distance himself from that language in an interview with a local CBS station in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

JON DELANO: What is forcible rape as opposed to...

PAUL RYAN: Rape is rape. It's - rape is rape, period, end of story.

DELANO: So that "forcible rape" language meant nothing to you at the time?

RYAN: Rape is rape, and there's no splitting hairs over rape.

SHAPIRO: Ryan emphasized that a President Romney would set an administration's position on abortion. Romney says women should be allowed to have an abortion in the case of rape or incest. Ryan personally opposes those exceptions. But Romney's stance on abortion has shifted over the years. This week, the L.A. Times reported that in the 2008 presidential campaign, Romney touted the support of the doctor behind Akin's theory that raped women don't get pregnant. Romney called that doctor an important surrogate for his campaign four years ago.

Since that detail of the story emerged, the Romney campaign has only agreed to local interviews under the condition that reporters agree not to ask about Akin or abortion.

ED ROGERS: It's a distraction, and we don't need any distractions, especially the week before our own convention.

SHAPIRO: Republican consultant Ed Rogers says this controversy is a gift to Democrats and an albatross for Romney.

ROGERS: It's cost him days when he could be having a message about something else, particularly about the economy, and instead of having a message about that, we're talking about one of the wackiest things said in American politics this year, and that's saying something.

SHAPIRO: The ultimate question is whether this will drive votes. Debbie Walsh directs the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. She says women tend to vote on economic issues, but this debate could be different if it seems especially regressive.

DEBBIE WALSH: It's getting into some issues that I think for a lot of women were settled long ago, and so I think it has the potential to engage them more in the process and I think that on the Democratic side, that has been something that has been lacking.

SHAPIRO: She's talking about the enthusiasm gap that has favored Republicans in this election. Democrats hope that Akins's comments will add some much-needed fuel to their party's fire. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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