NEW ALBANY, Ind. -- Top Republicans were slow to embrace tea party-backed Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock after he ousted a longtime GOP senator from office. Though he eventually won their support – and money – Mourdock could see both fade after telling a live television audience that when a woman becomes pregnant during a rape, "that's something God intended."

Mourdock, who has 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," Mourdock said.

Mourdock became the second GOP Senate candidate to find himself on the defensive over comments about rape and pregnancy. Missouri Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin said in August that women's bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of what he called "legitimate rape." Since his comment, Akin has repeatedly apologized but has refused to leave his race despite calls to do so by leaders of his own party, including GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

Republicans split on their reaction to Mourdock Wednesday morning. Indiana gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence said Mourdock should apologize for the comment, and a spokeswoman for Republican congressional candidate Susan Brooks said she disagreed with Mourdock.

But the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has invested heavily in Mourdock and Indiana, said their candidates' words were being twisted.

"Richard and I, along with millions of Americans - including even Joe Donnelly - believe that life is a gift from God. To try and construe his words as anything other than a restatement of that belief is irresponsible and ridiculous," NRSC Chairman and Texas Sen. John Cornyn said in a statement.

It was not immediately clear what effect Mourdock's comments might have during the final two weeks in the increasingly tight race against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly. But they could prove problematic. Romney distanced himself from Mourdock on Tuesday – 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 Mourdock's Senate bid.

Other Republicans did not immediately weigh in. Indiana Republican Party spokesman Pete Seat referred comment to the Mourdock campaign.

National Democrats quickly picked up on Mourdock's statement and used it as an opportunity to paint him as an extreme candidate, calling him a tea party "zealot." DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz described Mourdock's comments as "outrageous and demeaning to women" and called on Romney to take his pro-Mourdock ad off the air.

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," Mourdock said. "Anyone who would suggest that is just sick and twisted. No, that's not even close to what I said."

Mourdock has consistently opposed abortion, with the exception of cases where the mother's life is in danger. His stark pro-life stance earned him the endorsement of Indiana Right to Life in the Republican primary and the general election.

In response, Donnelly said after the debate in southern Indiana that he doesn't believe "my God, or any God, would intend that to happen."

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 veteran Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar in a brutal campaign. Initially, national Republicans stayed out of the Indiana race because the race had appeared to be a likely win for the GOP.

But as the race grew tighter in recent months, Mourdock changed his tune and started trying to woo moderate voters. At the same time, top Republicans began stumping for 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 Barack 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 fundraiser Monday, and Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham campaigned for Mourdock last week. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte is due in the state Wednesday.

Romney's coattails carry special significance in conservative Indiana, where Mourdock has underperformed Romney by 12 points in most public polls. Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS also has bought another $1 million of airtime 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.

Donnelly, a moderate Democrat who opposes abortions, has spent much of his campaign highlighting 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 airtime for Donnelly ads this week.

Loading Slideshow...
  • 99 Problems (JAY-Z)

    Eric Fehrnstrom, senior campaign adviser for Mitt Romney, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2012/06/03/494238/fehrnstrom-shiny-objects-women/" target="_hplink">said on Sunday</a> that issues pertaining to women's reproductive rights, such as abortion and birth control, were "shiny objects" meant to distract voters from the real issues. "Mitt Romney is pro-life," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "He'll govern as a pro-life president, but you're going to see the Democrats use all sorts of shiny objects to distract people's attention from the Obama performance on the economy. This is not a social issue election."

  • Talk (Coldplay)

    The Senate will vote Thursday on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would expand and strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and make it illegal for employers to punish women for bringing up pay disparity issues. Dana Perino, a Fox News contributor and former press secretary for President George W. Bush, <a href="http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/04/30/perino-equal-pay-issue-is-a-distraction-for-just-48-hours/" target="_hplink">called the equal pay issue</a> "a distraction" from the country's real financial problems last week. "Well, it's just yet another distraction of dealing with the major financial issues that the country should be dealing with," Perino said. "This is not a job creator."

  • Just My Imagination (The Temptations)

    Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose home state's legislature recently defunded Planned Parenthood and voted to pass a bill that would allow employers to deny women birth control coverage, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/26/john-mccain-war-on-women_n_1455591.html" target="_hplink">delivered a floor speech</a> in which he insisted that the war on women is something imaginary for Democrats to "sputter about." "My friends, this supposed 'War on Women' or the use of similarly outlandish rhetoric by partisan operatives has two purposes, and both are purely political in their purpose and effect: The first is to distract citizens from real issues that really matter and the second is to give talking heads something to sputter about when they appear on cable television," he said.

  • Butterfly Fly Away (Miley & Billy Ray Cyrus)

    Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tried to trivialize concerns about the legislative "war on women" by comparing it to a "war on caterpillars." "If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we'd have problems with caterpillars," Priebus <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-05/priebus-says-gender-battle-as-fictonal-as-caterpillar-war.html" target="_hplink">said in an April interview</a> on Bloomberg Television. "It's a fiction."

  • Distraction (Angels And Airwaves)

    Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Steelman (R) took heat from her opponents in May when she contended that Democratic lawmakers' focus on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was "a distraction" from the issues they should be dealing with instead. "I think it's unfortunate that the Democrats have made a political football out of this thing, which I think is what they keep doing to distract from real problems that are facing our nation," she said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio.

  • We Don't Care (Kanye West)

    South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) defended the Republican Party in April for going after insurance coverage for contraception by arguing that women don't actually care about contraception. "Women don't care about contraception," she said on ABC's The View. "They care about jobs and the economy and raising their families and all those other things."