WASHINGTON -- It looks as though the voters of the "Show Me" state will have the opportunity to "show" their tolerance for ignorance by electing Republican Rep. Todd Akin to the Senate or strike a blow for enlightenment by sending him packing in November. The six-term Missouri congressman, who would sanctify the results of rape and incest, so far is refusing to withdraw from the senatorial race despite nearly universal condemnation from his party's leadership, including Mitt Romney.
Why am I not surprised? Few Americans are more dedicated to a single cause than those who believe right to life should be preserved at whatever the cost and under whatever condition, including the well being of assault victims. It's amazing how they will support their beliefs with the most preposterous, unverified contentions, hypotheses that have absolutely no scientific validity and can be overwhelmingly dispelled statistically. Rape is responsible for more than 25,000 pregnancies a year and the rate for rape pregnancies is the same as for consensual sex, 5 percent.
In that vein, Akin has set off a conflagration that has succeeded so far in threatening both the GOP national ticket and the party's chances of winning control of the Senate. He has managed to refocus debate from the economy where Barack Obama is weakest to the most contentious of issues, abortion, where Republicans are most vulnerable, particularly among women who already were smarting over GOP pandering to those opposed to contraception. As a result Obama leads Romney by 22 points among women voters.
Oh, in case you've had your head in the sand the last few days, Akin said on television that even "legitimate rape" -- a contradiction in terms -- should not be cause for abortion. He claimed that rape victims don't usually get pregnant because a woman's body automatically prevents it. It took but a relatively few minutes for the alarms to go off among Republicans leaders. Akin's initial apology for "misspeaking" fell on ears still ringing from the disastrous potential of these remarks.
The problem with the apology, of course, is that Akin obviously believes what he implied, that when it comes to reproduction and its consequences, women's rights are secondary. Sadly, I'm afraid, that view is also supported by religious dogma that dates to the dark ages and is espoused from various pulpits. There is a growing disillusionment among American women generally over what they consider anti-feminist sentiment in the GOP's conservative base. Romney would do away with support for Planned Parenthood, for instance.
So now, despite a cut off of millions of dollars in support from the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and other outside groups and being told he isn't wanted at the party's "unity" convention in Tampa next week, Akin has indicated he will soldier on, hoping to rally his cause's faithful around him and still defeat the once vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, who obviously has a new lease on political life. It's hard to imagine Akin once was the best chance the GOP had to reclaim the Senate.
But that is not the worst of the party's dilemma. When tackling the president's handling of the economy, Romney gains, but when debate turns to social issues he is substantially short. Surveys show that two thirds of the electorate support termination of pregnancy in cases of rape, incest or the health of the mother. It isn't difficult to see how controversy over Akin, a sponsor of legislation that would ban all government support for abortion unless pregnancy results from "forcible rape," could spill over to the national ticket. Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, also is a sponsor of that bill. Pardon me, but I thought all rape by definition was forced.
The old adage that a weekend can be a month in politics applies here. National Republicans can only hope their prompt denunciation of Akin's remarks and their shunning of him can undo some of the harm. The GOP ticket already has to overcome growing unease among older Americans about Ryan's proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher system. Romney can ill afford to see more inroads among traditional voting blocs. To win, he must keep the focus on the core issue -- the economy.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)