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Akin rape comment doesn’t help GOP with women, experts say

By Dave Helling, The Kansas City Star –

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A party already struggling to win support from women faced a setback when U.S. Rep. Todd Akin — a Republican running for the U.S. Senate in Missouri against a woman — used the befuddling term “legitimate rape.”

National public opinion polls show President Barack Obama holds a small but relatively consistent lead among women voters. In a CNN poll two weeks ago, Democrat Obama led Republican Mitt Romney by 9 points among women voters, but only 6 with men. Other polls have shown a larger gender gap, particularly with single women.

Akin’s comments — for which he apologized Monday — may widen that gap, said Mona Lyne, chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“Especially younger women voters, who are hooked into social media,” she said. “This just went viral immediately. … I think Claire McCaskill is very happy about this.”

McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent, wasn’t a lock with women voters before Akin’s interview comments. Indeed, in a Survey USA poll released this month, she trailed Akin by 14 points among women voters but just 9 points with men.

That gap is now likely to narrow, experts said, if Akin stays in the race.

A gender gap isn’t an issue only in Missouri. In the presidential campaign, and in House and Senate races, any lingering problems with Akin’s statements could be damaging, Lyne said.

“Romney came out right away and tried to distance himself from this,” she said. Akin’s comments fed “into the narrative of the ‘war on women,’ and that these people don’t understand women. The comments he made were so incredibly off.”

Even some conservative writers made similar comments.

“Akin will become the left’s wedge to drive the gender gap wider to help Democrats and ultimately Obama in Missouri and nationally,” wrote columnist Bryan Preston at PJMedia, a conservative website.

Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said the Akin stumble may complicate the GOP’s outreach to women voters.

“Akin’s rape comments make that more difficult, and the national GOP leadership knows it,” he said in an email. “This isn’t just about a Missouri Senate seat anymore, and the strong, fairly unified reaction among most top Republicans proves it.”

Democrats moved quickly Monday to capitalize on the Akin reaction.

“What I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, the majority of which are men, making decisions that affect health of women,” Obama said in a statement at the White House.

Some women’s groups were even more aggressive.

“Rep. Akin is not fit for public service,” said Erin Matson, vice president for the political arm of the National Organization for Women, in a blog post. “This isn’t a blooper. An apology or retraction is not sufficient.”

In a statement, the National Abortion Rights Action League said, “Politicians like Akin do not deserve to hold any elective office.”

But other women’s groups defended at least some of Akin’s views.

“No one is arguing that rape is anything but a despicable, horrible crime,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group. “Abortion supporters like Sen. Claire McCaskill are trying to use this issue as a smokescreen to hide from their radical, pro-abortion records that are out of step with the majority of Missourians and the American people. … Todd Akin, on the other hand, has a record of voting to protect human life.”

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