NEW ALBANY, Ind. (AP) — Top Republicans were slow to embrace tea-party-backed Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock after he beat longtime GOP Sen. Richard G. Lugar in the May primary. Though Mr. Mourdock eventually won their support — and money — he could see both fade after telling a live television audience that when a woman becomes pregnant during a rape, "that's something God intended."
Mr. Mourdock, who's been locked in one of the country's most expensive and closely watched Senate races, was asked during the final minutes of a debate Tuesday night whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.
"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," Mr. Mourdock said.
Mr. Mourdock, the state treasurer, became the second Republican Senate candidate to find himself on the defensive over comments about rape and pregnancy. Rep. W. Todd Akin of Missouri said in August that women's bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of what he called "legitimate rape." Since his comment, Mr. Akin repeatedly has apologized but has refused to leave his Senate race despite calls to do so by leaders of his own party, from GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on down.
It was not immediately clear what effect Mr. Mourdock's comments might have during the final two weeks in the increasingly tight race against Rep. Joe Donnelly, his Democratic challenger. But they could prove problematic. Mr. Romney distanced himself from Mr. Mourdock on Tuesday night — a day after a television ad featuring the former Massachusetts governor supporting the GOP Senate candidate began airing in Indiana.
"Gov. Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an email to The Associated Press. Romney aides would not say whether the ad would be pulled and if the Republican presidential nominee would continue to support Mr. Mourdock's Senate bid.
Other Republicans did not immediately weigh in. Indiana Republican Party spokesman Pete Seat referred comment to the Mourdock campaign. A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday night.
National Democrats quickly picked up on Mr. Mourdock's statement and used it as an opportunity to paint him as an extreme candidate, calling him a tea party "zealot." Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, described Mr. Mourdock's comments as "outrageous and demeaning to women" and called on Mr. Romney to take his pro-Mourdock ad off the air.
Mr. Mourdock further explained Tuesday night after the debate that he did not believe God intended the rape, but that God is the only one who can create life.
"Are you trying to suggest somehow that God preordained rape, no, I don't think that," Mr. Mourdock said. "Anyone who would suggest that is just sick and twisted. No, that's not even close to what I said."
In response, Mr. Donnelly said after the debate in southern Indiana that he doesn't believe "my God, or any God, would intend that to happen."
Mr. Mourdock, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress three times before becoming state treasurer, became one of the tea party's biggest winners of the 2012 primary season when he knocked off Mr. Lugar in a brutal campaign. Initially, national Republicans stayed out of the Indiana race because the it had appeared to be a likely win for the GOP.
But as the race grew tighter in recent months, Mr. Mourdock changed his tune and started trying to woo moderate voters. At the same time, top Republicans began stumping for Mr. Mourdock around the state in a push to break open the high-stakes Senate race. Republicans need to gain three seats, or four if President Obama wins re-election, and seats that were predicted to remain or turn Republican have grown uncertain.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came to Indianapolis for a Mourdock fundraiser Monday, and Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham campaigned for Mr. Mourdock last week. Sen. Kelly Ayotte is due in the state Wednesday.
Mr. Romney's coattails carry special significance in conservative Indiana, where Mr. Mourdock has underperformed Mr. Romney by 12 points in most public polls. Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS also has bought another $1 million of air time in Indiana, making his group the biggest player in Indiana's Senate race. A message left for Crossroads GPS spokesman Nate Hodson was not immediately returned.
Mr. Donnelly, a moderate Democrat who opposes abortions, has spent much of his campaign highlighting Mr. Mourdock's tea party ties and trying to accuse him of being too extreme, even for conservative Indiana. Democratic groups have bought another $1.6 million of ai rtime for Mr. Donnelly ads this week.