WASHINGTON -- Indiana GOP U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock declared Tuesday night he opposes aborting pregnancies conceived in rape because "it is something that God intended to happen."
Debating Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) in their final Senate race showdown, a questioner asked them and Libertarian candidate Andrew Horning to explain their views on abortion.
All three said they were anti-abortion. But Mourdock went further, putting himself in territory near Missouri GOP Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin, the anti-abortion congressman who infamously asserted that women don't get pregnant from "legitimate rape."
"The only exception I have to have an abortion is in the case of the life of the mother," said Mourdock, the Tea Party-backed state treasurer. "I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."
Mourdock unseated veteran Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in the May primary, and has battled Donnelly for the longtime senator's supporters since. Abortion has been a touchy issue for the candidates, with Mourdock accusing Donnelly of lacking strength on the issue because Donnelly backed the health care reform law. Donnelly has criticized a requirement that ensures women can get birth control, even when their employer objects to contraception.
"I believe in pro-life," Donnelly said, carving out somewhat more moderate anti-abortion stance. "I believe that life begins at conception. The only exceptions I believe in are for rape, incest and the life a mother."
Horning argued that the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision was unconstitutional, and that abortion issues should be state matters.
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who has endorsed Mourdock and cut a campaign ad on his behalf that began running in Indiana on Tuesday, took issue with the abortion comments Tuesday night.
"Gov. Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views," said Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Mourdock tried to clarify his comments soon after the debate, saying God does not intend sexual assaults.
"God creates life, and that was my point," Mourdock said in a statement. "God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that He does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick."
Nevertheless, Democrats jumped on the comments as further proof that Murdock is an extremist.
"I think rape is a heinous and violent crime in every instance," said Donnelly in his own statement. "The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in, does not intend for rape to happen -- ever. What Mr. Mourdock said is shocking, and it is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape."
"Richard Mourdock's disturbing comment about rape is a window into Mourdock's extreme view of the world, " said Shripal Shah, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Indiana can't afford to send a self-proclaimed 'zealot' and Tea Partier like Richard Mourdock to the Senate."
Mourdock has been trying to soften some of his postions for the general election after running on a platform that described "compromise" as when Democrats came to agree with him.
Horning had argued earlier in the debate that Mourdock should stick with the harder line.
"As I was reading about the extreme stands of Richard Mourdock I was thinking, 'Hey, there's hope for this guy.' A lot of the stuff that he said was correct," Horning said, referring to Mourdock's suggestions that entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security may not be constitutional.
"He has repudiated a lot of those statements. Some of it was about the unconstitutionality ... right on," Horning said. "We need somebody who is going to stick with principles."
Luke Johnson contributed reporting. This article was updated after publication.