GWEN IFILL: A controversial remark from a Senate candidate dominated politics today, with both President Obama and Mitt Romney weighing in and taking other jabs as well.
JAY CARNEY, White House: Surprise guest here.
GWEN IFILL: President Obama, who has been pinning his reelection hopes on women voters, took advantage today of controversial remarks made by a Republican Senate candidate, who implied there are different kinds of rape.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The views expressed were offensive.
Rape is rape. And 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.
GWEN IFILL: Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, who is challenging Democratic Senate incumbent Claire McCaskill, had been asked to defend his opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape.
REP. TODD AKIN (R-Mo.): It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
GWEN IFILL: Although Akin later said he misspoke and he apologized, his remarks, aired over the weekend, caused a political uproar.
McCaskill called the remarks ignorant and offensive, but Republicans turned on him, too. Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, engaged in his own tough reelection campaign, called on Akin to quit the race. Other GOP groups said they would stop contributing to his campaign.
In an interview with WMUR television in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney denounced Akin's remarks.
GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R): His comments about rape were deeply offensive. And I can't defend what he said. I can't defend him.
GWEN IFILL: Before the Akin comments came to light, the Obama campaign had already released new ad over the weekend aimed at calling attention to the Republican ticket's record on women's issues.
NARRATOR: And both Romney and Ryan backed proposals to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
GWEN IFILL: Romney and Ryan, meanwhile, continued today to hammer away at the president's record on Medicare. They contend he would deplete it to pay for the federal health care law. They campaigned together in New Hampshire.
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-Wis.): That's a raid on Medicare. And Mitt Romney and I are going to stop that raid of Medicare. We're going to restore this program. And we're going to get these bureaucrats out of the way of standing between our senior citizens and their Medicare.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
PAUL RYAN: Medicare should not be a piggy bank for Obamacare. It should be a guaranteed promise that our seniors can count on.
MITT ROMNEY: I want to take off that big cloud that's hanging over a lot of small businesses. And that is, I want to make sure that we get Obamacare out of the way and replace it with something which will help encourage job growth in this country.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: The debate over Medicare has intensified since Ryan joined the ticket a little over a week ago. Democrats say Romney's budget plan would end the program.
On Saturday, Ryan campaigned with his 78-year-old mother, Betty, in Florida.
PAUL RYAN: Medicare is there for my mom. Say, hi to my mom, Betty.
GWEN IFILL: Each side has made it a staple of every campaign day to accuse the other of twisting the facts, especially when it comes to taxes.
MITT ROMNEY: It seems as the first victim of an Obama campaign is the truth, because all we have heard so far is one attack after the other, and frankly they're not -- they're typically not honest. Let me make this very clear. You know, I signed a statement. I will not raise taxes on anybody. I don't want to raise taxes on the American people.
GWEN IFILL: At the White House, the president also focused on taxes, the records Romney won't release.
BARACK OBAMA: I think the idea that this is somehow exceptional, that there should be a rationale or a justification for doing more than the very bare minimum, has it backwards.
GWEN IFILL: Romney has released two years of tax returns and said he's never paid less than a 13 percent tax rate. Ryan released two years of records on Friday, which showed he paid an effective tax rate of 20 percent.
The Republican National Convention begins one week from today, but the political debate is not waiting until then.
For more on what's driving today's developments, we turn to Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today, and Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call newspaper.
So today, Todd Akin, a lot of Republicans were telling him to step aside, they were telling him to quit. And he was saying he's going to stay in this race. Was this a gift to the Democrats?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: A gift to Claire McCaskill, who was in a very tough Senate reelection campaign, a gift to Democrats generally in their hopes of holding on to the Senate, because it makes that Missouri seat harder for them to pick up, and I think a gift even to Democrats generally for the impact on the Republican brand, especially with women.
Remember, women are among the prime group of swing voters that politicians are looking for.
GWEN IFILL: How worried, Stuart, are Republicans that this could be the kind of distraction which tips the balance?
STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Well, I think over the long term that's not a huge problem, but the short term it certainly is a problem.
Look, any day that the Republicans are not talking about President Obama, his record, the economy, jobs is a day that they have lost an opportunity. And so we just saw that video of Mitt Romney having to answer a question about Todd Akin. He's off-message, he's on the defensive. We're not -- Todd Akin, this is not where the Republicans want to be.
Now, look, this was an unforced error. This was unintended. And I don't think any of us expected that today we would be talking about this. And so I don't know we will be dealing with this in a week or in a month, but it's a problem for today.
GWEN IFILL: Well, in fact, we weren't really much talking about the Missouri race, except to the degree that Claire McCaskill seemed in peril. How critical is Missouri?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, now the Republican strategists who I talked to are very worried about the race. They're unsure that Akin can recover from this. He is a terrible fundraiser. He has been a bad fundraiser.
They're concerned that this will dry up any potential establishment mainstream business money that might have gone to him. And if he can't compete financially, they don't want to invest in the race. And if that's the case, then he can't win.
Now, we're in the middle of the hurricane. And I like to say give us 24, 48 hours and we will see what the reality is. But there's nervousness. And while he now says he's not getting out of the race, this is -- we have seen this before, haven't we, Gwen, in politics? Twenty-four hours is a long time.
GWEN IFILL: Standing by people 100 percent. Yes.
STUART ROTHENBERG: So, we will wait and see. There's a deadline of 5:00 tomorrow in terms of whether he can get off the ballot and they can simply put somebody else on.
But there's a secondary deadline later in September when he might have the opportunity, he would have the opportunity to petition a judge to get off the ballot and replace him. So, we will see.
GWEN IFILL: USA Today did a poll today of battleground states. Is Missouri one of those states that's up in the air or maybe is it again after today? And if not, what did you learn on that?
SUSAN PAGE: Yes, Missouri is no longer one of the battleground states. It was once the key battleground state, a state that you would really look at.
GWEN IFILL: Yes.
SUSAN PAGE: But it's become -- trended too Republican for that.
We took a poll of the 12 most competitive states in the country in the presidential race. Guess what we found? By 56 percent to 40 percent, people in those states, voters in those states say they are not better off than they were four years ago. That is a really alarming number for an incumbent president saying give me a second term.
On the other hand, President Obama continues to lead by 3 percentage points in these states. So, that says that while voters are unhappy with President Obama and his leadership, especially on the economy, they do not yet trust Mitt Romney to look out for their interests.
GWEN IFILL: So, that is the dynamic we're seeing as we watch the White House jump so gleefully on these kinds of distractions, even on this tax question.
STUART ROTHENBERG: And that's why the White House and the Obama campaign wants the election to be about Mitt Romney.
Now Paul Ryan, Medicare, Romney's taxes -- as long as the focus is on Romney, it creates doubts about him. And as long as he's been unable to ingratiate himself with the American public and to be accepted by them, even though the president isn't doing great, as Susan suggests, President Obama has a better chance.
GWEN IFILL: Why then if -- today's distraction provided frames this question for me. We spent the last week arguing about' Medicare, which usually isn't the kind of thing that allows you to define the other guy necessarily, especially when this seems to be a standoff over who is going to cut what.
SUSAN PAGE: And it's interesting. Republicans have really taken this head on and tried to take the offensive in Medicare, which we think of usually as a Democratic issue, an issue that helps Democrats.
I think they had to do that with the pick of Paul Ryan as the running mate, because he has a specific plan on Medicare that they felt they had to defend and explain.
They did succeed in putting the White House, President Obama, a little on the defensive over what the Affordable Care Act does to Medicare. To that degree, it's a success.
But I really agree with Stu that if you're talking about any topic that is not jobs and the economy and generally, that is a good day for Barack Obama.
GWEN IFILL: And that includes Medicare too?
STUART ROTHENBERG: I think so. I don't think the Republicans really want to talk about Medicare. I think they have been forced to by the Ryan selection and the fact that the Democrats have jumped on that.
They have to respond. They have to say, no, the way we're being portrayed, characterized on Medicare is wrong. Here's our proposal. But all things being equal, I don't think they want to spend a day or a week or a month talking about Medicare. They have to talk about jobs, Obama health care, what the president has or has not done.
GWEN IFILL: And we know that in a week, we are all going to be Tampa watching this debate unfold. Do Republicans get to at least for that week set the table and talk about what they want to talk about?
SUSAN PAGE: Absolutely. I think it's the biggest opportunity that Mitt Romney has to address that concern that we found in our poll, that people, number one, don't feel like they know much about him.
And, number two, a lot of what they know about him is what they have seen in these negative ads that have been aired by President Obama and his allies. So this is a chance. They get to stage their own convention, choose their own speakers.
And that speech that Gov. Romney will give Thursday night I think is perhaps the most important in the campaign for him. That's his chance to talk to Americans, to voters who don't know him, don't trust him and say, here's why you can trust me.
GWEN IFILL: What's your guess? Is Todd Akin going to be at that convention?
STUART ROTHENBERG: I don't think he will be at the convention, no.
But I do think I agree with Susan completely. Voters are ready for a change, but they're not sure Mitt Romney is the right change. He's got to do that over the next few weeks to introduce himself. And he's got to put Todd Akin way behind him, way behind him.
GWEN IFILL: Stu Rothenberg and Susan Page, thank you both very much.