WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Representative Todd Akin, under fire for controversial remarks on abortion and rape, insisted on Tuesday he would not leave the Missouri Senate race, despite pressure from fellow Republicans and talk of who might replace him on the November 6 ballot.
Akin -- a staunch abortion opponent -- vowed to stay in the contest against Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, indicating he represents a conservative movement that must be heard.
“We are going to continue in this race for U.S. Senate,” Akin told “The Mike Huckabee Show,” a radio program hosted by the former Arkansas governor, an Akin supporter and favorite of religious conservatives.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Tuesday joined the chorus calling for him to pull out of his race after Akin claimed in a weekend television interview that it was extremely rare for women to get pregnant from “legitimate rape.”
“Today, his fellow Missourians urged him to step aside, and I think he should accept their counsel and exit the Senate race,” said Romney, who previously condemned Akin’s comments.
The fuss over Akin’s remarks sent waves of anxiety through the Republican Party a week before it reaches out to independent voters, especially women, at its national convention, where it will nominate Romney to run against President Barack Obama.
The issue is a particularly delicate one for Romney, testing his influence on the party in connection with abortion rights --which the former governor supported while running for office in Massachusetts.
The Akin episode has energized Democrats and given new hope to McCaskill, who in recent polls has trailed Akin by about 10 points in a race widely viewed as a barometer of whether Republicans can gain the four seats they need to ensure control of the U.S. Senate.
A Public Policy Polling survey on Monday had Akin ahead by one point.
To the dismay of many Republicans, Akin’s woes also have cast a spotlight on a key part of the party platform that delegates again endorsed on Tuesday: a call for a constitutional amendment protecting “human life.” The provision does not spell out exceptions in cases of rape and incest.
That is not the position of Romney, who has said that abortion should be allowed to end pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
Obama, who supports abortion rights, also strongly denounced Akin’s remarks, saying “rape is rape.”
Romney’s vice presidential running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, has expressed a harder line on abortion, saying it should be allowed only to save the life of the mother. Amid the furor over Akin’s remarks this week, their campaign said a Romney/Ryan administration would reflect Romney’s position.
The furor over Akin’s comments are a distraction in an election that Romney has sought to keep tightly focused on the economy and jobs.
Tim Wildmon, president of the influential American Family Association, was one of several social conservatives who have come to Akin’s defense.
“The way Akin is being treated by some GOP leaders and colleagues is just wrong. This is a decent, honorable man who has been pro-life and pro-traditional values. He has apologized for his choice of words and that should be the end of it,” Wildmon said.
Although religious conservatives are a crucial part of the Republican base, many party leaders say the party’s central message should be its conservative approach to fiscal issues like debt and deficits.
“Try as we might to focus attention on the big issues facing this country, every time we turn around, there’s a distraction, and this is a huge one,” said former Missouri Senator John Danforth, one of a group of current and former U.S. senators from the state who has urged Akin to step aside.
“It’s not that we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. We keep shooting ourselves in the eyes,” he said.
Under Missouri election law, Akin has until 5 p.m. local time (6 p.m. EDT) to get his name off the ballot for the November 6 election most easily. But his real deadline is likely September 25, the last day his name can be removed with a court order.
If Akin leaves the race, the Missouri state Republican committee would name a successor to run against McCaskill. Possible candidates include the two Republicans Akin defeated in the primary two weeks ago to become the Senate nominee.
Akin had 36 percent of the vote to 30 percent for St. Louis businessman John Brunner and 29 percent for former state Senator Sarah Steelman. But the party can pick any candidate, and many observers expect it would do so as the best way to leave the Akin flap behind.
“You’d have to look at Steelman and Brunner, but they might be best off aiming for the fresh start,” said Jennifer Duffy, who follows House and Senate races at the Cook Political Report.
Other possibilities include former Senator Jim Talent, who lost narrowly to McCaskill in 2006 and Representative Jo Ann Emerson, considered a favorite because many Republicans think the party would best reassure women voters by running a woman.
Other names include U.S. Representative Vicky Hartzler and Ann Wagner, a former Republican National Committee co-chairwoman, and Tom Schweich, the state auditor.
In another sign that he is not leaving, US News and World Report reported that Akin spent $150,000 on Tuesday for television advertisements in seven media markets.
But he will struggle to keep up with funding for McCaskill, especially after the Karl Rove-linked American Crossroads Super Pac said it would no longer spend the $4.5 million it had set aside for the race. The Republican Party also said it would hold back $5 million in funding.
McCaskill’s campaign is using Akin’s comments in its fundraising, and some supporters have reported big increases in their wake. Emily’s List, which supports Democratic women candidates, said it has seen a big jump in fundraising as the news of Akin’s comments spread.
Akin apologized again in an Internet advertisement called “Forgiveness.” And he sent a fundraising letter to supporters on Tuesday asking for donations of $3 or more.
“I have just begun to fight and I‘m in this race to the end! We must work together to replace Claire McCaskill in the Senate,” Akin wrote.
Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City and David Lawder in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman