KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Still mourning the death of her mother, Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill returned to campaigning Wednesday as Republican challenger Todd Akin gained a dual boost from a former presidential hopeful and a political group that had aided one his rivals in the GOP primary.
Former Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich led a rally for Akin in Kansas City, urging supporters to send a powerful signal to "the moneyed Republican establishment" that – led by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney – abandoned Akin after an August remark about "legitimate rape."
Yet there were fresh signs that Akin was regaining GOP support. The Now or Never Political Action Committee, which backed an Akin rival in the GOP primary, announced Wednesday that it was buying $800,000 of TV ads urging Romney supporters to also vote for Akin on Tuesday.
Missouri polls have consistently shown Romney leading Democratic President Barack Obama, who narrowly lost the state four years ago. Some polls also have shown a tightened Missouri Senate race, as Akin has attempted to rebound from an Aug. 19 TV interview in which he said women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy after "legitimate rape."
McCaskil had canceled most of her campaign events during the past week to spend time with her ailing mother, who died Monday. She returned to campaigning Wednesday with an event outside a St. Louis County elementary school.
"This has been a tumultuous time in my life, obviously," said McCaskill, her voice seeming to break. "And part of me is a little lost. This is the first time I've walked out my house in the morning, campaigning, where I haven't had a chance to say, `Mom, I'm out there. I'm going.' And she hasn't given me the, `I wish I could go. Go get them.' So that's hard for me. She's been a huge part of my life in so many ways."
McCaskill used the school setting to criticize Akin's opposition to the federally funded school lunch program, which began during the administration of President Harry Truman, a Missouri native. Akin has suggested states could better handle the program.
"This is a program that should not be a place that candidates for the United States Senate differ, but we do. And that should remind Missourians how extreme Todd Akin is," McCaskill said.
At the rally in Kansas City, Akin suggested it is McCaskill who was out of touch with most Missourians in supporting Obama's federal stimulus act and health care law. He noted that 71 percent of Missouri voters approved a 2010 ballot measure rejecting a key provision in the health care law.
Akin also emphasized that low-income housing firms affiliated with McCaskill's husband, Joseph Shepard, have received tens of millions of dollars of federal subsidies. That's "your taxpayer dollars that are going to her family business," Akin said Wednesday.
Cheers mixed with jeers as Akin and Gringrich spoke at Kansas City's historic Union Station to a crowd that included about 100 supporters and nearly as many protesters, many carrying signs that referenced Akin's "legitimate rape" remark. The event highlighted the intensity of a campaign that has remained in the national spotlight and could help determine party control of the U.S. Senate.
Republicans need a net gain of four Senate seats in Tuesday's election – or just three, if Romney defeats Obama and gives a GOP vice president the power to break tie votes in the Senate – to retake the chamber's majority from Democrats.
"No single Senate race in the country will send a more powerful signal than the election of Todd Akin," Gingrich said at the rally, first noting the potential for Republican control of the chamber. But Gingrich said there was an equally strong point to be made within the GOP.
"There is no other race in the country that will send a bigger signal to the moneyed Republican establishment that it is votes that matter and citizens that matter," Gingrich said to his most enthusiastic applause. "When people of a state make a choice, they deserve to be respected for their right to choose the candidate they want, not the candidate Washington dictates."
Winning the majority was the reason cited by the Now or Never PAC for its new ad. The group had backed Akin rival Sarah Steelman in the Aug. 7 GOP primary.
"Todd Akin may have not been our first choice for Republican nominee in the race to replace Claire McCaskill," said spokesman Tyler Harber. "But congressman Akin plays an important role in securing the Senate chamber."
Among the protesters at Wednesday's rally in Kansas City was Neil Harris, a retired college teacher and McCaskill supporter who held a sign saying, "Todd and Newt (equals) Hypocritical Mass." Harris referred to Akin as "an idiot."
"His 13th century doctrine on women shutting down the possibility of pregnancy after rape seems to be far from reality," Harris said.
Akin supporter Kiley Chaney, a union bricklayer who drove an hour from rural Garden City to attend the rally, acknowledged that Akin had "made some blunders in the campaign." But Chaney said he was more concerned with McCaskill's ties to Obama and the large national debt.
"She's going to be a yes woman for Obama," said Chaney, later adding: "It's not fashionable to be for Akin, but I'm going to vote against McCaskill."
Salter reported from St. Louis.