After Republican Rep. Todd Akin's inflammatory comments over the weekend in which he blithely minimized rape-induced pregnancies, there are at least two inescapable questions:
1) What impact will his remark have on his U.S. Senate race in Missouri against Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill?
2) And how much will the shockwaves buffet the presidential contest or other races elsewhere?
While it's too early to know the answers, it seems safe to say that the earliest damage appears closest to the epicenter. That is, on Akin himself.
But there are also clearly risks for Mitt Romney, the all-but-official Republican presidential nominee, and Paul Ryan, his running mate, as Democrats seek to connect Akin's eyebrow-raising views to the GOP's national ticket, framing it all as part of the alleged Republican "war on women."
Ensuring that the controversy won't be dying down anytime soon, President Obama weighed into it at a White House press briefing Monday, using Akin to form a contrast between Democrats and Republicans.
Less than week after he won the Republican nomination in a three-way race, Akin was being asked repeatedly by high-level fellow Republicans to drop out of the contest. And that's despite his attempt to back away his initial comments.
During a Sunday TV interview, Akin said by way of explaining his opposition to abortion, even in instances of rape:
"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Not surprisingly, that unscientific comment resulted in outrage at the Missouri congressman.
Responding to a reporter's question on Monday, Obama demonstrated why Akin's comment is a waking nightmare for Republicans:
"The views expressed were offensive. Rape is rape. The idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we're talking about doesn't make sense to the American people. And certainly doesn't make sense to me. So what I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn't have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women."
"Although these particular comments have led Gov. Romney and other Republicans to distance themselves, I think the underlying notion that we should be making decisions on behalf of women for their health care decisions or qualifying forcible rape versus non-forcible rape, I think those are broader issues. And that is a significant difference in approach between me and the other party ..."
Obama's reference to forcible rape was as much about Ryan, House Republicans and Romney as it was Akin.
Last year, Ryan and Akin were among the co-sponsors of unsuccessful legislation that would have narrowed the exception to the ban on federal taxpayer dollars being used to pay for abortions. Their bill would have applied the exception to only "forcible" — but not to "non-forcible" — rape.
Such legislation has contributed to the Democratic polling advantage with women voters, an edge Romney has hoped to narrow.
So while a growing number of Republicans said they personally found Akin's statement repellant, political exigencies as well demanded a forceful pushback against the Missouri congressman.
Sen. Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican in a close race himself against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, was among the first elected GOP officials to come out forcefully against Akin, calling on him to give up his party's nomination.
"As a husband and father of two young women, I found Todd Akin's comments about women and rape outrageous, inappropriate and wrong. There is no place in our public discourse for this type of offensive thinking. Not only should he apologize, but I believe Rep. Akin's statement was so far out of bounds that he should resign the nomination for U.S. Senate in Missouri."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who heads the Senate Republicans' effort to win enough seats to take control of that chamber, didn't go as far as Brown. But a Cornyn statement seemed to be nudging, if not pushing, Akin:
"Congressman Akin's statements were wrong, offensive, and indefensible. I recognize that this is a difficult time for him, but over the next twenty-four hours, Congressman Akin should carefully consider what is best for him, his family, the Republican Party, and the values that he cares about and has fought for throughout his career in public service."
Cornyn mentioned 24 hours because Missouri law gives Akin only until Tuesday at 5 p.m. local time to drop out. Otherwise, his name remains on the ballot.
As of this writing, Akin gave no public indication he was close to dropping out. Just the opposite, in fact:
During an interview on Mike Huckabee's radio show, Akin, who apologized profusely for his controversial remarks of a day earlier, also struck a defiant note:
"I'm not a quitter. My belief is we're going to move this thing forward. To quote my friend John Paul Jones, I've not yet begun to fight."
So far, Romney and Ryan haven't gone as far as Brown, though the former Massachusetts governor has noticeably intensified his responses to Akin from his first statement
In a Monday morning interview with the National Review Online, Romney said:
"Congressman's Akin comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong," Romney said. "Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive."
That was a notable escalation from the campaign's earlier statement from campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul:
"'Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin's statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape."
Republicans with no official party roles joined Brown in calling for Akin's exit.
Mike Murphy, a GOP political strategist who advised the campaigns of Romney and Sen. John McCain, tweeted:
"Akin should put good of GOP first and resign nomination now after his idiotic comment. Senate control too important."
Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin sounded a similar note:
"The question for Republicans in Missouri is whether sticking by self-inflicted-wounded Akin is more important than securing a U.S. Senate majority."
And that is the question, especially since there is precedent for Republicans who enjoyed polling leads in Senate races against their Democratic rivals, losing not only their leads but the eventual contests because of a misstep.
Nate Silver on the FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times reminds us of George Allen in Virginia and Peter Hoekstra in Michigan, who both lost Senate races after they needlessly stepped on political landmines.
Allen made his infamous "macaca" comment aimed at a man of East Asian ancestry; Hoekstra ran an ad featuring an actress who to many seemed to be portraying an Asian stereotype.
"These episodes in Virginia and Michigan, which produced a net swing of about 10 percentage points in the polls against the candidate involved in the controversy, appear as though they may represent fairly typical cases."
The current Akin episode appeared to further validate the re-election strategy of McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent. During the Republican primary campaign, McCaskill ran TV ads that called Akin the most conservative of the three Republicans in the race.
To observers, it appeared she was hoping that would help him win the primary in a state whose Republicans have been trending more conservative in recent elections. Polls that showed her trailing all the Republican candidates showed her trailing Akin by the smallest margin. (Update: At a campaign stop in Festus, Mo., McCaskill said the idea Akin will be forced to step down by GOP insiders in a slap in the face of Missouri voters. Adam Allington of St. Louis Public Radio reported on her comments.)
Meanwhile, Akin's comment was proving most unhelpful to Romney and Ryan as it allowed Democrats to increase their attacks on the Republican national ticket.
As Politico reported, even before Akin's comments, Democrats had already gone after both Romney and Ryan for opposing women's reproductive rights, including the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortions. What Akin's comments did was give Democrats fresh material for their argument that they are better on women's issues than Republicans.
Lis Smith, an Obama for America spokeswoman, issued the following statement:
"While Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are working overtime to distance themselves from Rep. Todd Akin's comments on rape, they are contradicting their own records. Mr. Romney supports the Human Life Amendment, which would ban abortion in all instances, even in the case of rape and incest. In fact, that amendment is a central part of the Republican Party's platform that is being voted on tomorrow. And, as a Republican leader in the House, Mr. Ryan worked with Mr. Akin to try to pass laws that would ban abortion in all cases, and even narrow the definition of 'rape.' "