GWEN IFILL: A once-sleepy U.S. Senate race turned the Republican Party on its ear today, as social issues claimed center stage in Missouri and the site of next week's GOP nominating convention.
REP. TODD AKIN (R-Mo.): Rape is an evil act. I used the wrong words in the wrong way, and for that, I apologize.
GWEN IFILL: Under increasing pressure from his own party, Missouri Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin vowed again today to stay in the race.
The congressman, who questioned whether women could be impregnated by rape, apologized, but said he wouldn't be forced from the campaign. The resulting uproar has pleased Democrats and enraged Republicans, including other lawmakers and fundraisers.
Incumbent Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, has said Republicans should accept Akin's apology.
SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D-Mo.): And I think what is startling to me is that these party bigwigs are coming down on him and saying that he needs to kick sand in the face of the Republican primary voters.
GWEN IFILL: But party leaders, including Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and former Senators Kit Bond, John Ashcroft, John Danforth and Jim Talent, all called for Akin to step aside.
And late today, presidential nominee Mitt Romney joined the chorus, saying in a statement, "Today, his fellow Missourians urged him to step aside, and I think he should accept their counsel and exit the Senate race."
Money is drying up, too. Karl Rove's super PAC, Crossroads GPS, has cut off funds, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, led by Sen. John Cornyn, said it will withhold the $5 million it had set aside for the Missouri contest.
Plus, both Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and party chairman Reince Priebus have declared Akin a politically dangerous distraction.
In the face of all of that criticism, Akin still told radio talk show host Mike Huckabee he's in.
TODD AKIN: And in my case, I believe, as I took a look at this race, that what we're doing here is standing on a principle about what America is. I believe that this is the right thing for me to do, and that I will be able to add to the message that's being neglected in some circles by the Republican Party.
GWEN IFILL: The party was trying to sideline Akin at the same time as delegates in Florida were voting today to include strong anti-abortion language in the party platform to be presented in Tampa next week.
The language reads, "We assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. There are no exceptions included for rape or incest."
The party nominee, Mitt Romney, like John McCain did in 2008, supports such exceptions.
Party chairman Priebus told MSNBC today that it's fine for Romney to disagree with a party document.
REINCE PRIEBUS, Republican National Committee chairman: As far as our platform is concerned, I mean, this is the platform of the Republican Party. It's not the platform of Mitt Romney. That all being said, though, these guys are proud pro-life candidates, and we're a proud pro-life party.
GWEN IFILL: Today was the last day Akin could have been replaced as the party nominee without a court order.
So, what do the events of the last 48 hours say about the suddenly divisive fight within the GOP over abortion? We turn to Garance Franke-Ruta of the Atlantic and Jon Ward of The Huffington Post, who's covering the platform meetings in Tampa.
Garance, it seems as if this issue, of all issues, really struck a nerve that went deeper than just Missouri politics.
GARANCE FRANKE-RUTA, "The Atlantic": Absolutely.
I think this is the point at which the anti-abortion movement sort of trips over another very controversial issue, which is rape.
And there has been for a while now within the anti-abortion movement a move to sort of minimize the pregnancy consequences of rape as a way of minimizing the question about abortion exceptions, for abortion bans in particular.
GWEN IFILL: So, what he was saying in the answer to the question about whether rape should be an exception or not was an accepted principle in some circles?
GARANCE FRANKE-RUTA: Absolutely.
There's been talk of this going back as early as 1980, as far as I can find, on people saying that, you know, pregnancy after rape is as rare as snowfall in Miami, that there are certain secretions secreted after a sexual assault that prevent pregnancy, other people who say that the tubes become spastic, and, consequently, women don't become pregnant.
And this is the way of arguing against the need for rape exceptions in abortion laws.
GWEN IFILL: Jon Ward, in Tampa, I imagine this has been a big part of the conversation. Why were the denunciations -- you have been covering Mitt Romney this year. Why were they so swift and so harsh coming from him especially?
JON WARD, The Huffington Post: Well, as you know, we're leading up to the convention next week. That's one of the biggest weeks of the campaign for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
They want to make a positive impression and introduce themselves to the nation. Having this conversation about social issues, instead of the economy and jobs and also their platform on Medicare, is not what they want to be talking about. And so, to have this kind of blow up a couple of days before this big week is less than ideal for them.
GWEN IFILL: Here's what puzzles me.
I have covered a lot of platform committee meetings over the years, unfortunately, because they're always so exciting.
GWEN IFILL: But why is it that abortion, which most Republicans agree about -- most of these Republican leaders, these folks running for office are pro-life and are anti-abortion. Why would there be a disagreement about this at this late stage?
JON WARD: Well, I don't know that there is a ton of disagreement.
I mean, the Republican platform, as you probably are aware, has had this kind of plank where it says, you know, we support the anti-abortion stance, and that's it. For 20-plus years going back to 1984, they haven't changed anything.
What has kind of injected this issue with all of this energy is Rep. Akin's comments. And, you know, as you mentioned, Mitt Romney has a position where he supports exceptions in the case of rape and incest. And this disagreement is just being brought to the fore, almost exclusively by Akin.
GWEN IFILL: I have to ask a question, Garance, about Todd Akin, who I would say most of our viewers outside of his home district in Missouri had never heard of before yesterday.
What is it about what he said or what he did that got under people's skin so particularly within his party? It wasn't just Mitt Romney. It wasn't just Mitch McConnell. I -- you saw the names I reeled off, all of the leading lights.
GARANCE FRANKE-RUTA: Yes, absolutely.
He said that women who are legitimately raped, their body shuts down conception. And so there's two parts to that that are controversial, one of which is an attempt within the Republican Party that has been going on for a while to divide violent rapes from statutory rapes or from less violent encounters, and only grant rape exemptions to violent rapes.
So there is an attempt to divide rape into sort of legitimate and illegitimate rapes, as people felt from his language. And then there was also the question of the biology.
And it's just there's no biology to support what he was saying, that the body shuts down. You know, estimates are that 25,000 to 32,000 women become pregnant from sex crimes every year in the United States.
GWEN IFILL: What is the significance of -- and I noticed both yesterday and today the strongest statements that Todd Akin made about staying in this race were on Mike Huckabee's radio show, ran for president a couple of years ago, has now got a radio show in which he obviously has been a great supporter of Todd Akin.
Is there some connection there?
GARANCE FRANKE-RUTA: Well, there in some ways, Todd Akin is a little bit like the Mike Huckabee of Missouri right now, in that he has a very strong base in the homeschooling community and with grassroots Christian conservatives, just like those who brought Huckabee up in Iowa when he was running for the presidency.
And, you know, the same kind of thing, someone who didn't have a lot of money, had a lot of party machinery against him in a multi-person race, with the strength of the homeschooling community and with the strength of Christian conservatives, was able to win a nomination. And given that that's his base, he doesn't see any reason that he needs to drop out right now.
GWEN IFILL: Jon, if Todd Akin is the drag on the party that so many party leaders seem to think, does that translate to Missouri suddenly being -- helping out -- Sen. Claire McCaskill suddenly having an advantage or Mitt Romney even perhaps losing Missouri? Are there any polls to support that?
JON WARD: I don't think there's any polls to support the idea that Romney would be in danger of losing Missouri at this point, I think that's a little premature.
But, certainly, I mean, even Republicans, Reince Priebus, Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia as well, told me today at this point Akin -- it seems impossible or at least very unlikely that he would win this race, which is why they want to get him out.
I mean, who controls the Senate is in an incredibly important issue, especially if Mitt Romney wins next year. It could hinge -- or it could depend on whether or not he's able to get his agenda through whether they have that majority or not.
GWEN IFILL: You have mentioned Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is the chairman of the platform committee down there in Tampa, who you talked to today. He has been in the crosswinds before in Virginia.
JON WARD: Yes, he has.
He got into some controversy earlier this year for talking about transvaginal probes and had to walk that back, so he's no stranger to women's issues, women's health issues, and how they have become a very, very sensitive issue in this election year.
A big part of that sensitivity is that the Obama election campaign, reelection campaign knows this is an advantage for them.
Women voters in key swing states like Virginia and Ohio favor Obama by large margins. And the Obama campaign wants to make sure they keep those margins up.
GWEN IFILL: But all women voters are not necessarily pro-abortion rights.
GARANCE FRANKE-RUTA: Oh, absolutely. There's a lot of anti-abortion women voters as well.
But for the purposes of the Obama campaign right now, you know, pumping up the gender gap as big as it can get is absolutely in his favor. Mitt Romney will have a very difficult time winning if the gender gap gets quite substantial. And it has been quite substantial, and then it's narrowed a little, and then it's going to get bigger.
GWEN IFILL: All right, Garance Franke-Ruta and Jon Ward, thank you both very much.
GARANCE FRANKE-RUTA: Thank you.