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NEW ALBANY, Ind. (AP) — Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said Tuesday when a woman becomes pregnant during a rape, "that's something God intended."
Mourdock, who's been locked in one of the country's most watched Senate races, was asked during the final minutes of a debate with Democratic challenger Rep. Joe Donnelly 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 during a television interview 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, from GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on down.
It was not immediately clear what effect Mourdock's comments might have during the final two weeks before the Nov. 6 election. But they could prove problematic. Romney distanced himself from Mourdock on Tuesday night — 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. A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday night.
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 woman" and called on Romney to take his pro-Mourdock ad off the air.
Later Tuesday after the debate, Mourdock further explained 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," said Mourdock. "Anyone who would suggest that is just sick and twisted. No, that's not even close to what I said."
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."
Along with Romney's ad, top Republicans have been flocking to Indiana as part of an effort to break open the high-stakes race for the Senate seat, currently held by veteran GOP Sen. Richard Lugar who was defeated by Mourdock in the May primary. 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 deeply 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.