Republican Party’s Battle Lines Tested — By a Remark About Rape

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A pro-life activist stands in front of pro-choice activists with the National Organization For Women at a vigil outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s serious business when prominent members — and the chief fundraisers — of any political party suggest that one of their own should consider getting out of a contest.

That’s what Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, facing his own close contest with consumer advocate and Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, did today.

And that’s what Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of his party’s efforts to take control of the Senate, did today.

Both spoke out forcefully about Rep. Scott Akin of Missouri, the party’s nominee for Senate there in November, who suggested in a televised interview over the weekend that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy.

Their stances today go the heart of a matter that has divided factions of the party for years: abortion — with the party platform this year remaining staunch in its opposition to all abortion.

And it goes to the potential problem the party faces among women in November, with polls showing skewed support among female voters for President Barack Obama and the party attempting to widen its standing in the Senate. Warren poses a threat to that in Massachusetts, and now Akin poses a threat to his own party’s hard-fought effort to unseat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.  The staunchest opponents of abortion are calling on the party’s leaders to show some “backbone.”

Obama wasted no time in focusing on the remark about rape that sparked this debate.

“Rape is rape,” Obama said at an impromptu news conference at the White House today, fielding questions on this and other matters. “And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people — and certainly does not make sense to me.  What I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decision on behalf of women. ”

“As a husband and father of two young women, I found Todd Akin’s comments about women and rape outrageous, inappropriate and wrong,” Brown said in a statement on his Web site. “There is no place in our public discourse for this type of offensive thinking,” Brown said. “Not only should he apologize, but I believe Representative Akin’s statement was so far out of bounds that he should resign the nomination for U.S. Senate in Missouri.”

Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Akin’s assertion was “wrong, offensive, and indefensible.”

Under Missouri law, Akin would have until 5 p.m. tomorrow to withdraw without his name appearing on the ballot.

“I recognize that this is a difficult time for him, but over the next 24 hours, Congressman Akin should carefully consider what is best for him, his family, the Republican Party, and the values that he cares about and has fought for throughout is career in public service,” Cornyn said.

Akin, who made his original remarks in a Sunday program on a Fox television affiliate in St. Louis, and later said that he had misspoken, said today on former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s Fox program:“The good people of Missouri nominated me, and I’m not a quitter.”

The discussion that started all this involved barring abortions in cases of rape.

“From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” said Akin, who has served in the U.S. House since 2001 “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Later, on his own Web site, he said:n “In reviewing my off-the-cuff remarks, it’s clear that I misspoke in this interview and it does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year.”

There are some within the party who say leaders have lost their “backbone” on this one.

Connie Mackey, president of Family Research Council Action, the political arm of the group that opposes abortion and gay marriage, said as party leaders assembled in Tampa today to draft their convention platform that politicians such as Brown calling for Akin’s withdrawal from the Missouri Senate race should show “ backbone” and defend the Missouri congressman against “gotcha politics.”

“We support Todd Akin,” she told reporters at the platform committee deliberations. “We are not going to back down.”

Tony Perkins, president of the parent Family Research Council, said Brown “should be careful” with his condemnation of Akin because there already have been several episodes in which the Massachusetts senator was “off the reservation.”

“His support among conservatives is very shallow,” Perkins said.

Nevertheless, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, whose own prospects as a possible running mate for presidential candidate Mitt Romney may have been stymied by his support for Virginia legislation limiting abortions,  was outspoken in his criticism for Akin today — while noting that the party will hold to its principles on abortion.

McDonnell, the platform committee’s chairman, said in an interview that any discussion of rape “absolutely should condemn violence in every form against women.”

“So while many of us strongly support the right to life, we also strongly disagree with these comments as representing policies that the pro-life community should embrace,” McDonnell said. The abortion plank of the platform will “affirm our view and support for the right to life” that has been part of the Republican platform for “several decades,”’ he said.

The Republican platform statement on abortion doesn’t make an exception for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

“We don’t get into those details” because as long as the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion stands,  he said, “these are matters of faith and morals.”

Jim Rowley reported from the Republican platform meeting in Tampa,  Kathleen Hunter from Washington.

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