WASHINGTON // Democrats have seized on remarks by a Republican senate hopeful about "legitimate rape" that are proving a public relations gift almost scripted to slot into a key campaign theme of theirs - that the Republican Party is waging a war on women.
Todd Akin, a six-term Republican congressman from Missouri who is trying to unseat the Democrat incumbent in that state's US senate race in November, sparked outrage by saying that "legitimate rape" is unlikely to cause pregnancy,
On Sunday, he told a TV station that abortion should not be allowed in rape cases because pregnancy was unlikely to result.
"If it's legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," Mr Akin said, citing "doctors".
His comments helped provide Democrats with a second straight week of ammunition with which to put Republicans on the defensive.
Last week, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential hopeful, had to defend his party's position on health insurance for the elderly after presenting conservative budget cutter Paul Ryan as his running mate, by implication endorsing Mr Ryan's proposals for deep cuts in social welfare programmes.
Mr Romney has had to act swiftly to distance himself from Mr Akin, calling the comments "insulting, inexcusable and, frankly, wrong".
The Republican Party also moved quickly to pressure Mr Akin to step aside in a senate race it had hoped to win in November in its bid to seize control of the US Senate.
The Republican National Committee said it would redirect US$5 million (Dh18.3m) in funding earmarked for the Akin campaign.
Democrats have seized on the opportunity to pour scorn on Mr Akin's remarks and draw broader conclusions about the Republican Party's position on women and women's health care in particular.
"Rape is rape", Barack Obama, the US president, said on Monday during a White House news conference. "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."
Debbie Wasserman Schulz, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from Florida, wrote in an email to the party rank-and-file the "real issue" was not Mr Akin's choice of words.
"The real issue is a Republican party - led by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan - whose policies on women and their health are dangerously wrong," she said.
Jeffrey Weiss, who has worked on several Republican presidential campaigns, conceded that Democrats would now "make hay" with Mr Akin's remarks to divert attention away from Republican attempts to focus on the economy.
"For Romney to win this election, his campaign needs to focus on Obama's record on the economy," hr said yesterday. Republicans have a chance to refocus the debate at their national convention at the end of this month, but with less than 90 days to the election, Mr Weiss said the latest uproar "will waste precious time".
Whether Democrats can implicate Mr Ryan in the furore remains to be seen. He and Mr Akin this year co-sponsored a bill that would curtail a long-standing exemption to the federal ban on abortion funding for rape survivors unless the woman experienced a "forcible rape". The bill did not make clear the difference between "forcible rape" and rape.
Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington, suggested that the connection that Mr Obama was making between Mr Ryan and Mr Akin was "particularly damaging".
"There's no question that Paul Ryan is ultimately anti-choice," she said. "But when you link him now to somebody who is not only anti-choice but is also using language that is utterly offensive, it becomes that much more serious a problem for Republicans."
Mr Akin's remarks, she said, had been handed to Democrats on a "silver platter" as they were consistent with Democratic efforts in recent months to paint Republicans as waging a war on women.
"I don't think the Democrats ever would have imagined that something so offensive and egregious would have been uttered by a high-profile senate candidate," she said.
Women make up the majority of registered voters in the US and are traditionally more likely to vote than men. In a tight race, the women's vote could prove crucial.
"Romney has been trying to woo women voters and suggest that this 'war on women' rhetoric is nothing but rhetoric," said Ms Lawless. "This situation does not help him make that point."
So far Mr Akin has said he will not step down from the Missouri race.
He has apologised for the "mistake I made".