Sen. Claire McCaskill called rival Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" a window into the Republican's thinking, seizing on a moment that has suddenly boosted her imperiled reelection bid.
In an interview on MSNBC on Monday morning, a stern McCaskill spoke of her background as a prosecutor working with rape victims, and said Akin's answer to a question about abortion in the case of rape lacked sensitivity.
"It shows how many people are out there, sometimes in very important positions, that just don't understand the trauma, and don't understand what it means," the Democrat said. "For most Missourians I hope this is one of those gut check moments when they realize this is not somebody we want speaking for us and for our values on the floor of the United States Senate."
Akin, a Republican congressman from Missouri, was asked in an interview with KTVI-TV if he would support abortion in the case of rape.
"It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," Akin replied. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child."
Medical experts estimate that about 30,000 American women each year become pregnant as a result of rape.
Akin later said he misspoke, though he did not retract or clarify the reference to "legitimate rape."
McCaskill called that response "jaw-dropping and stunning."
"This statement is kind of a window into Todd Akin's mind," she said.
The Missouri Senate race is seen as a vital pick-up opportunity for the GOP in their bid to reclaim the Senate majority, which they lost in the 2006 elections. Republicans need to win at least three Democratic-held seats this year to do so, and McCaskill, who represents a state that has trended to the right, has been seen as vulnerable heading into the fall campaign.
But as a signal of how Akin's remarks have suddenly altered the dynamic of the contest, MSNBC noted that Akin would have until Tuesday afternoon to withdraw from the race without significant complications. Asked about such a possibility, McCaskill noted that it was only earlier this month that Akin won a hotly contested primary race.
Other Republicans, including other Senate candidates and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, have sought to distance themselves from Akin's comments.
In a statement released Monday morning, Virginia Senate candidate George Allen said that he "strongly disapproves of his original comments — and the sentiments behind them."
"Regardless of party, we all have a responsibility to unite against any leniency on crimes against women and turn our focus to the solutions that make America stronger and safer," he said.
The Romney campaign said both members of the ticket disagree with Akin, and would not oppose abortion in instances of rape. That would mark a shift in position for Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, who has opposed allowing abortions in cases of rape.
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