WORTHINGTON, Ohio — As the Republican standard-bearer this year, Mitt Romney, a late-in-life convert to the pro-life cause, finds himself at the helm of a party staking out an increasingly absolute opposition to abortion, even as he tries to woo moderate voters he'll need to win on Election Day.
That's come to a head this week as Mr. Romney grapples with Richard Mourdock, the GOP's Senate candidate in Indiana, who said during a debate that if a pregnancy results from rape, the life is still precious and "something that God intended to happen."
The political uproar has muddied Mr. Romney's campaign narrative at a time when the former Massachusetts governor is riding a wave of momentum in the polls and hopes to close out the campaign with the economic message he launched his second bid for the presidency with nearly 17 months ago.
Mr. Romney refused again to weigh in on Mr. Mourdock's comments Thursday, ignoring reporters' shouted questions. His campaign has said he disagrees with what Mr. Mourdock said, but he has not withdrawn his endorsement as President Obama has demanded.
The Romney campaign argues it's not his job to referee the party's down-ticket candidates. Instead, he will focus on his economic message and argue that's the brand the GOP is carrying in this election.
"This is an election that is being viewed by most voters through the lens of the economy," said Kevin Madden, a top Romney adviser. "Voters who have a strong interest in the life issue will know where the candidates stand and what their differences are."
Republican candidates are giving Democrats plenty of chances to try to focus back on abortion, though.
Earlier this year Rep. W. Todd Akin, Republicans' nominee for the U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, said women's bodies have ways of rejecting pregnancies that result from "legitimate rape."
In that instance, Mr. Romney joined a chorus of Republicans in calling on Mr. Akin to drop out of the race. But in the case of Mr. Mourdock, Mr. Romney has been more muted — and some analysts said that's a sign of strength on the campaign's part.
"The statements were very different and at that stage he was trying to get some oxygen in his campaign," said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, a Republican and Romney supporter. "I guess they felt they did not want the social issues to define him in the campaign when he didn't have traction yet. After the debate, Romney was in a far stronger position. Now when people look to him, he can stand on his own two feet."
Mr. Romney evolution on the life issue — from pro-choice to pro-life — has been well documented and has given opponents an opening to attack him as a political opportunist.
He says he opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother's life is endangered. He also has made inconsistent statements on whether he supports an exception in cases of the mother's health.
Many conservatives go further, though, arguing that if life begins at conception, then there can be no exceptions under the law. These pro-lifers have defeated efforts to insert those exceptions into the Republican Party anti-abortion plank, leaving the party officially silent on them.
The dispute pits Republicans against each other, with Mr. Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, on the conservative end, and those such as Sen. Scott P. Brown Massachusetts on the other end.
Polls show that abortion remains a top concern for many women voters, even in an election that has largely been seen as a referendum on Mr. Obama's economic policies.
As a result, the Obama camp and Democrats have pounced on the issue, arguing that Mr. Romney is unwilling to stand up to the "extreme" elements of his party and is staking out positions that will hurt women's health.
"Romney would take us back to the foreign policy of the 1980s, the social policy of the 1950s, and the economic policy of the 1920s," Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said this week. "For proof of that, we don't have to look any further than Romney's continued support for Richard Mourdock, whose comments that pregnancies resulting from rape are 'something God intended' highlight how far Republicans, including Romney, are willing to go to roll back women's health care options.
"If Romney can't stand up to these extreme voices now, we know he wouldn't be able to if elected."
The Romney forces in the key state of Ohio, though, say the line of attack is not resonating with voters.
"I think the race in Ohio is about which candidate has a plan to create jobs, and Mitt Romney is winning that argument, [especially among independent voters]," said Scott Jennings, Ohio campaign manager for Mr. Romney.
"I suspect more Ohioans know Murdock as a character from the old 'A-Team' television show rather than as a political candidate in another state. And I'd pity the fool who thinks Barack Obama isn't flailing around in Ohio right now as he watches us slice his early vote margin, win independents and knock on hundreds of thousands of doors every week in the biggest GOP turnout operation ever seen in Ohio."
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