WASHINGTON -- This is starting to look like a Mourdocktober surprise for Democrats.
Indiana's Tea Party Senate candidate, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, may have handed Democrats the last-minute, swing-state lift they needed with his stunning comments that pregnancies stemming from rape, however horrible, are "something that God intended to happen."
Mourdock tried to soften his comments Wednesday, saying that he did not mean God intends for women to be violated -- only that every life was a divine gift.
Nevertheless, the repercussions from his words quickly spread across the Hoosier State and the country, as both the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee seized on the remarks, and nearly every Republican in a close Senate race who responded to The Huffington Post denounced Mourdock's comments.
Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown was first, followed soon by Connecticut candidate Linda McMahon, who said in a statement: "Richard Mourdock's comments were highly inappropriate and offensive. They do not reflect my beliefs as a woman or a pro-choice candidate."
Even anti-abortion candidates sought distance from the intemperate Mourdock.
"Jeff Flake's pro-life position has always included exceptions for rape, incest, and to protect the life of the mother, so he does not agree with some of the comments made by other candidates on this issue," said Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for the Arizona congressman.
"Dean Heller disagrees. He does not share these views," said Chandler Smith, a spokeswoman for the Nevada senator.
In Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson spokeswoman Lisa Boothe simply said, "No," the former governor does not agree with Mourdock.
One Senate candidate who agrees with Mourdock's opposition to abortion, Pennsylvania challenger Tom Smith, found the comments out of bounds. "Tom Smith condemns those remarks," said spokesman Jim Conroy. Smith also condemned the "legitimate rape" remarks from Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), but in the process whipped up his own furor with comments that sounded like he was comparing rape to pregnancy out of wedlock.
Some GOP Senate candidates declined to respond, including North Dakota Rep. Rick Berg, Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, and Virginia candidate George Allen. All are on record opposing abortion in nearly every circumstance, as does Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who was caught on video ducking the question.
For Mitt Romney, the timing of Mourdock’s surprise couldn’t be worse. The remarks came just a day after a Mourdock ad featuring Romney -- the only one the Republican presidential nominee has cut for a Senate candidate this election -- began airing on TV.
Romney quickly moved to distance himself, although his campaign did not withdraw the endorsement and said it has not requested that the ad be taken off the air. “Gov. Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock, and Mr. Mourdock’s comments do not reflect Gov. Romney’s views." said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "We disagree on the policy regarding exceptions for rape and incest but still support him."
The reason for all the denunciations and head-ducking is that Mourdock's assertion reinvigorates the outrage that many Americans -- especially women -- expressed when Akin, a candidate for Senate, infamously declared that women don't get pregnant from "legitimate rape." And it reminds them that much of the GOP holds similar views that the party could act on if it wins the White House and Senate.
It's hard to say exactly how that will affect campaigns this late in the game, but the potential to shave a percentage point or two from Republicans in close contests is there. And that may be enough for President Barack Obama and Democrats.
"It's Todd Akin all over again. The difference is, it's toward the end of the political campaign, which means it does get more attention, but it could also be drowned in a sea of political news," said the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato, who added that he wants to see how long the national focus stays on Mourdock.
But Sabato also noted that the remarks play perfectly into the sorts of ads that Democrats in the same close races have been running, such as the deadlocked Virginia contest between Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine.
"A lot of the Democrats have aired one or more ads about contraception, abortion, Todd Akin, you name it, it's been in there," Sabato said. "In those campaigns, the ones that have used this cluster of issues, I would think it reinforces their message."
The flareup over abortion certainly reinforced the message of Obama's campaign, and comes at a particularly bad time for Romney. As part of his bid to cast himself as a moderate in the final weeks before the election, Romney recently exhibited a softer stance on abortion, telling the Des Moines Register he would not pursue legislation that would restrict abortion access. The GOP nominee’s campaign almost immediately walked back his comments, which seemed a far cry from Romney's earlier pledges to both “get rid of” federal funding for Planned Parenthood and appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Just last week, a Romney campaign ad meant to appeal to women voters noted he supports exceptions for abortion in instances of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at stake. The challenge now appears to lie not with Romney’s own views, but with shifting the spotlight away from his party's more extreme voices, such as Mourdock's.
Even that strategy succeeds, though, the Indiana politician's bombshell seems to have made GOP efforts to keep Indiana in the red column -- and to take control over the U.S. Senate -- that much harder.
The damage was clearest in the comments of GOP gubernatorial candidate Rep. Mike Pence, who demanded that Mourdock apologize, as did Jackie Walorski, who is running to replace Mourdock's opponent, Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told CNN's Anderson Cooper Wednesday night he won't endorse Mourdock unless the candidate apologizes.
Mourdock declined, saying only that his views were heartfelt, and he was only sorry if people misinterpreted him.
Donnelly made clear that he would keep focusing on women.
"I think for someone running for the United States Senate, it is hurtful to women to survivors of rape and their families to have said this," Donnelly told reporters Wednesday. "When you say, in regards to rape, that pregnancy from rape is God's intention that it will happen, I just think that is hurtful and insulting to women, to rape survivors, and to the families."
UPDATE: 11:09 a.m. -- Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel expressed his continued support for Mourdock Thursday on The Laura Ingraham Show.
"He's a gentleman. He's a class act," Mandel said, according to a tweet from Ingraham’s show. "He apologized for his comments and I accept that."