ST. LOUIS -- On the day that Republican leaders had hoped Todd Akin would drop out of the Senate race, the defiant GOP nominee launched a statewide bus tour with renewed backing from fiscal and antiabortion conservatives.
Alongside more than 100 supporters, many of them faith leaders at conservative congregations, the GOP candidate whose campaign was upended by his "legitimate rape" comments is being celebrated by many on the right flank for bucking the establishment's calls to step aside.
As Tuesday's final deadline to withdraw neared, Akin played up his underdog role and his campaign appeared reinvigorated in its efforts to defeat incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
"People have asked me, 'Are you quitting? Are you dropping out?' " Akin said at the start of the tour in the ballroom of a downtown hotel. "I don't believe that is my decision. The decision has been made by the voters of the state of Missouri."
Funding for Akin's shoestring effort remains a challenge for the Republican congressman, who lost national financial support after he told an interviewer last month that pregnancy rarely results from "legitimate rape" because, he said, women's bodies have a way of "shutting" down in response to the trauma.
Mitt Romney and other party leaders have called on Akin to quit the race as the party struggles to narrow the gender gap enjoyed by President Obama.
But some Republican leaders here and in Washington are speaking out, countering that the party is being "stupid," as Newt Gingrich put it this week, saying the GOP establishment has had a "moral" obligation to support the party's nominee as Republicans seek control of the Senate in November.
The GOP needs to pick up four seats to tip the balance in the chamber. Conservative Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina -- whose support two years ago helped propel the tea party wave, including the candidacy of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and others -- asked donors in a fundraising letter Tuesday whether his political action committee should support Akin. Many expect he will.
"He's the kind of family, the kind of man we'd be so proud to represent the state of Missouri," said Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative icon and head of the Missouri-based Eagle Forum. "We know he will always do the principled thing."
Gingrich's longtime top aide is advising the Akin team.
McCaskill has kept a decidedly low profile as Akin cleared the deadline under state law to petition the court to have his name removed from the ballot. As of the close of business Tuesday, he had not asked the state secretary's office for the request.
As the race now begins in full form, political strategists expect McCaskill to dip into her deep war chest to run ads portraying Akin as extreme in his positions.
Akin has apologized repeatedly for his comment on rape, and said he misspoke. But he opposes abortion in cases of rape and virtually all others, and Democrats and their allies point to his long legislative record on the issue after six terms representing the St. Louis-area suburbs in Congress.
Polls that once gave Akin the advantage among voters in this Republican-leaning state now show McCaskill with the edge.
But McCaskill faces her own hurdles in a state where Romney leads Obama, as voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative against Obama's healthcare law, which she supported. Turnout will be key, particularly among moderate and nonpartisan suburban women, strategists said.
The first-term senator is running a TV ad that highlights her moderate approach to issues, as noted by her ranking as No. 50 among the 100 senators on an annual score of partisanship -- right in the middle, she says.
Akin's campaign has shot back with an ad showing her embracing Obama, who can be heard praising her work.
Top officials from the Republican National Committee and the party's Senate campaign committee in Washington continued to distance themselves from Akin, giving no indication they will support his renewed effort.
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