TAMPA, Fla. -- If there was one thing Republicans sought to make clear at the start of their national convention in Tampa on Monday, it was that the party would not allow Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comments to lead them into a dialogue on women’s health issues, but rather would remain focused on the "issues that matter," namely the economy.
In the prior week, national attention had focused on how Akin’s controversial statement -- that women who suffer "legitimate rape" have a way of shutting down their bodies to prevent pregnancy -- might impact both presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republican congressional candidates with women voters. Scrutiny of the Republican Party’s handling of women's issues further intensified when draft platform language, released in the wake of the Akin furor, included support for a constitutional ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest.
Nonetheless, Republicans were noticeably unwilling to discuss Akin, their abortion platform or any kind of polling gender gap, despite being prodded on the subject throughout the first day’s events in Tampa.
"I know that the DCCC likes to talk about a lot of things other than Obama's economy, but this is what we're voting on ... We’re voting on Obama’s economy," said Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, in a briefing with reporters. Harrison was reacting to a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee effort, launched Monday morning, to tie Republican members of Congress to the "extreme agenda" they share with Akin.
"Anything else they're talking about, any other issues, they're just wasting their time and space," he continued, adding later that most Republicans had called on Akin to step down, even though the congressman himself "made a different choice."
"If [Democrats] want to talk about that for the next two months, feel free," Harrison said. "We'll be talking about the economy."
A total of four questions on how the party planned to grapple with women's or social issues were virtually dismissed.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered a similar deflection toward the economy when asked about the aftermath of Akin’s remarks at a lunch hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
"This is another distraction," Boehner said. "The American people aren't asking questions about Akin. They're asking the question, 'Where are the jobs?'"
If national polling among women voters is anything to go by, however, the issue is hardly a distraction. According to a survey conducted just last month, President Barack Obama's support among single women nationally is nearly double that of Romney's, a gap that could be exacerbated if Akin continues to stand his ground in the Missouri Senate race and Republicans keep trying to portray abortion as a non-issue.
Romney's own discomfort with the whole matter was made apparent the previous Thursday, when a reporter for Denver's CBS affiliate KCNC said she was instructed not to ask him any questions about abortion or Akin as a condition for a one-on-one interview. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who once co-sponsored anti-abortion legislation with Akin in Congress, has spent the week sitting through interviews heavy on women, abortion and his definition of rape, as opposed to his budget plan, Medicare and how a Romney-Ryan ticket planned to create jobs.
Conservative activist Ralph Reed, who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told The Huffington Post last week that as much as the election might be about the economy and jobs, Republicans can't run away from the social questions, including those that resonate with women, such as contraception and abortion.
"These issues never go away," Reed said. "They are evergreen and they don't go away because of the size and vibrancy of the community that cares about them on both sides of the ball."
Republicans might succeed in setting aside the gender debate for the next 72 hours, but with the Democratic National Convention just around the corner -- during which the president's Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and women's health issues will play a big part -- dodging the issue until November looks very unlikely.