By TOM LoBIANCO
NEW ALBANY, Ind. (AP) - Top Republicans were slow to embrace tea party-backed Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock after he ousted a longtime GOP senator from office. Though he eventually won their support _ and money _ Mourdock could see both fade after telling a live television audience that when a woman becomes pregnant during a rape, "that's something God intended."
Mourdock, who has been locked in one of the country's most expensive and closely watched Senate races, was asked during the final minutes of a debate Tuesday night whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.
"I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen," Mourdock said.
Mourdock became the second GOP Senate candidate to find himself on the defensive over comments about rape and pregnancy. Missouri Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin said in August that women's bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of what he called "legitimate rape." Since his comment, Akin has repeatedly apologized but has refused to leave his race despite calls to do so by leaders of his own party, including GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
Republicans split on their reaction to Mourdock Wednesday morning. Indiana gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence said Mourdock should apologize for the comment, and a spokeswoman for Republican congressional candidate Susan Brooks said she disagreed with Mourdock.
But the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has invested heavily in Mourdock and Indiana, said their candidates' words were being twisted.
"Richard and I, along with millions of Americans - including even Joe Donnelly - believe that life is a gift from God. To try and construe his words as anything other than a restatement of that belief is irresponsible and ridiculous," NRSC Chairman and Texas Sen. John Cornyn said in a statement.
It was not immediately clear what effect Mourdock's comments might have during the final two weeks in the increasingly tight race against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly. But they could prove problematic. Romney distanced himself from Mourdock on Tuesday _ a day after a television ad featuring the former Massachusetts governor supporting the GOP Senate candidate began airing in Indiana.
"Gov. Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an email to The Associated Press. Romney aides would not say whether the ad would be pulled and if the Republican presidential nominee would continue to support Mourdock's Senate bid.
Other Republicans did not immediately weigh in. Indiana Republican Party spokesman Pete Seat referred comment to the Mourdock campaign.
National Democrats quickly picked up on Mourdock's statement and used it as an opportunity to paint him as an extreme candidate, calling him a tea party "zealot." DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz described Mourdock's comments as "outrageous and demeaning to women" and called on Romney to take his pro-Mourdock ad off the air.
Mourdock further explained Tuesday night after the debate that he did not believe God intended the rape but that God is the only one who can create life.
"Are you trying to suggest somehow that God preordained rape, no I don't think that," Mourdock said. "Anyone who would suggest that is just sick and twisted. No, that's not even close to what I said."
Mourdock has consistently opposed abortion, with the exception of cases where the mother's life is in danger. His stark pro-life stance earned him the endorsement of Indiana Right to Life in the Republican primary and the general election.
In response, Donnelly said after the debate in southern Indiana that he doesn't believe "my God, or any God, would intend that to happen."
Mourdock, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress three times before becoming state treasurer, became one of the tea party's biggest winners of the 2012 primary season when he knocked off veteran Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar in a brutal campaign. Initially, national Republicans stayed out of the Indiana race because the race had appeared to be a likely win for the GOP.
But as the race grew tighter in recent months, Mourdock changed his tune and started trying to woo moderate voters. At the same time, top Republicans began stumping for Mourdock around the state in a push to break open the high-stakes Senate race. Republicans need to gain three seats, or four if President Barack Obama wins re-election, and seats that were predicted to remain or turn Republican have grown uncertain.