Just as Mitt Romney is trying to move to the middle—and win suburban women in states like Virginia and Colorado—we got a new reminder that the Republican Party brand has been a drag on his campaign.
For a full week in August, the Romney campaign was saddled with a public relations disaster: Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin said in a TV interview that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." Romney sprinted away from Akin, and over the last two months his campaign has been working feverishly to reverse the perception that the Republican Party is out of the mainstream on reproductive rights.
Romney even released an ad showing a young woman "fact-checking" the suggestion that Romney does not support abortion in the instance of rape, incest and the life of the mother.
The Republican nominee has been steadily shrinking the gender gap: the president's edge among women is down to just eight points in the most recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. But now, at the worst possible time, another Senate candidate has pushed the issues of rape and abortion back into the headlines.
In a debate Tuesday night, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, the Republican nominee for Senate, was asked whether he supports legalized abortion in the case of rape. He responded: "I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."
The Romney campaign immediately distanced itself from Mourdock.
"Governor Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views," spokesperson Andrea Saul said in a statement Tuesday night. The Romney campaign added to that statement Wednesday with the clarification, "We disagree on the policy regarding exceptions for rape and incest but still support him."
But, awkwardly, Mourdock has just gone up with a straight-to-camera ad starring Romney enthusiastically endorsing him.
The Obama campaign quickly jumped on the controversy. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki called Mourdock's words "outrageous and demeaning to women," and said they are a "reminder" that a President Romney would work with a Republican Congress informed by the belief that "women should not be able to make choices about their own health care."
Psaki needled Romney, saying, "It is perplexing that he wouldn't demand to have that ad taken down."
Unlike in the case of Akin, where Republicans quickly rushed to the exits and it took weeks for political expediency to bring them back on board, the Mourdock controversy has divided the GOP.
This morning, the National Republican Senatorial Committee split with Romney and stood by Mourdock's comments. It said in a statement: "Richard and I, along with millions of Americans - including even [Democratic opponent] Joe Donnelly - believe that life is a gift from God. To try and construe his words as anything other than a restatement of that belief is irresponsible and ridiculous."
Meanwhile, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a frequent Romney surrogate, canceled a Wednesday campaign trip planned with Akin. Other candidates in close races have also disavowed Mourdock's comments. Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown's campaign released a statement saying that he is pro-choice and the views expressed by Mourdock "do not reflect" the senator's thinking.
In a press conference Wednesday Mourdock said his words were "twisted."
"I said life is precious. I believe life is precious," he said. "I believe rape is a brutal act. It is something that I abhor. And that anyone could come away with any meaning other than what I just said is regrettable, and for that I apologize."
With the president and Romney locked in a tight contest and only 13 days to go, is that too little too late?