INDIANAPOLIS — Embattled Senate candidate Richard Mourdock and national Republican officials said Thursday they were moving past the uproar over his comments that a pregnancy resulting from rape is God's will and refocusing the nation's political conversation on the presidential and congressional elections less than two weeks off.
But even as they tried to recover, Senate Democrats dropped $1.1 million on an ad keeping the spectacle alive and linking Mourdock's comments to Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
"God intended that a woman be raped and become pregnant? Even Mitt Romney and (gubernatorial hopeful) Mike Pence believe Richard Mourdock goes too far," the narrator says in the statewide spot, which began running Thursday night— 48 hours after Mourdock made the remark in a debate. Democrats said it would continue running over Indiana's airwaves through the Nov. 6 election.
Mourdock spokesman Brose McVey called the ad "sleazy."
"Now Donnelly and his liberal Washington allies are attacking Richard Mourdock's faith and beliefs," McVey said, adding the ad violates an agreement signed by the campaigns not to use footage from the debates, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington never signed that pledge.
The blistering speed with which national Democrats produced and aired the spot was a swift shove against a series of stubborn, stalemated contests, from the presidential race to the battle for control of the Senate and the Indiana race in particular. The state's open Senate seat is a must-win if Republicans are to gain the four seats they need to win control of the Senate if President Barack Obama wins reelection, three seats if Romney prevails.
The ad's subject matter — rape, abortion, and God — illustrated the overarching importance of one group of voters critical to every locked contest: Women voters. In Indiana, the pool of undecided voters is more than 60 percent women.
Obama and his Democratic allies have battled all year for the trust of female voters, with Democrats charging that Republicans were waging a "war against women" and Republicans insisting that their economic plans offered more to this critical bloc that suffered from the recession more than men.
Obama started the year with a big lead among women. But the latest Associated Press-GfK poll found Romney running even with the president among this group, erasing a broad gap in the president's favor. Romney made particularly large gains among women on handling the economy. However, he lags behind the president as more trusted to make the right decisions on women's issues.
The president weighed into the Mourdock matter early.
"Rape is rape. It is a crime," he said on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. "This is exactly why you don't want a bunch of politicians, mostly male, making decisions about women's health care decisions."
For his part, Romney's campaign quickly issued a statement saying that he disagrees with Mourdock on the issue. But he allowed an ad endorsing Mourdock to continue to run in Indiana, and the candidate himself ignored reporters questions about the matter in Ohio on Thursday.
Mourdock turned back to campaigning Thursday morning, holding a breakfast fundraiser west of Indianapolis with South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, meanwhile, continued hitting Democrat Joe Donnelly for co-sponsoring the a bill supported by Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin that would have barred federal funding for abortion in cases of statutory rape and incest. Akin also is struggling to recover from his own "legitimate rape" comment, aired in August, in his challenge to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
But unlike Akin, Mourdock was receiving support from loyal allies and even a few national Republicans.
"I don't know that I've ever in my many years in politics gotten such support, physical support, people come up and giving me hugs all day yesterday and telling me they're praying for me and my wife. We're moving forward and very confident with what the outcome will be," Mourdock told WTHR-TV in Indianapolis following his fundraiser with DeMint.
The party's 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, meanwhile walked back his request that Mourdock apologize for the comment, saying in a statement Thursday he was happy with Mourdock's explanation of what he meant.
With less than two weeks until the election, the Republican damage control strategy is: no more Akins.
"I think it makes a lot of sense to change the subject. As long as you're talking about this, you're losing," said Republican pollster Christine Matthews.
On Thursday, Mourdock tried to reclaim the strategy he had pursued up until Tuesday: tying Donnelly to Obama.
"Maybe the president ought to come out to Indiana and talk about it with Donnelly," Mourdock said in a statement emailed to the Associated Press. Mourdock's deputy campaign manager Brose McVey said the campaign planned interviews with television stations in Terre Haute, Ind. Thursday and a press event in New Albany, Ind. Friday, the southern Indiana town where he made the abortion comment during a Senate debate.
"This is a very competitive race and we're not going to back down and we're confident we're going to win," McVey said Thursday.