WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney needed that ludicrous outburst about "legitimate rape" from Republican Senate nominee Todd Akin like he needed a hole in the head. The gaffe may turn out to be another pothole in Romney's already uphill road to narrow President Barack Obama's wide polling lead among women voters.
The hapless Missourian observed of rape, based a view of unnamed doctors, that "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." The comment was so inane, not to mention insensitive, that it was an injustice even to the most sincere and morally opposed critics of women's abortion rights.
Was Akin really suggesting that the female anatomy has some built-in defensive mechanism against pregnancy that can be triggered by what anti-abortion folks call "forcible rape" -- as opposed to unforced or consensual rape? The remark can only fan an impression among many abortion-rights sympathizers that organizations that advertise themselves as pro-life are loaded with fanatics.
The Missourian futilely said he had merely "misspoke" in "off-the-cuff remarks." He later "clarified" by saying he had "made a mistake" and "used the wrong words in the wrong way." If he had just misspoken, what had he really intended to say about this mysterious inner power of women to avoid pregnancy in a "legitimate" rape? And under what circumstances can it be turned on?
Romney himself seemed so startled by Akin's observations that all he could say at first was that they were "insulting, inexcusable and, frankly, wrong," while later joining other party leaders to pressure Akin to withdraw from the race in Missouri.
The incumbent he was challenging, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, seemed so sure that Akin had committed political suicide that she tried to prop him up as her opponent. It would be "pretty radical," she said, if the national party tried to "dictate to the Republican primary voters" who had picked the now-vulnerable Akin, by kicking him off the ticket.
The Senate race in Missouri had been targeted by Republicans as perhaps their best chance to gain a Democratic seat and possibly regain control of the Senate. Now any debate over abortion and what is "legitimate" or "forcible" rape can only be bad news for Romney.
Beyond being another diversion from his desired focus on the state of the economy, such a discussion can draw the campaign into another round of argument over social programs. And the Obama campaign can to characterize it as more of Romney's war on the poor and middle classes, not to mention on women's rights.
Obama himself wasted not a split second seizing the political opportunity afforded by Akin's remarks, and particularly by the reference to "legitimate rape." The president insisted that "rape is rape, and the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we're talking about doesn't make sense to the American people, and certainly doesn't make sense to me."
Obama helpfully pointed out that Akin's comments underscored "why we shouldn't have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health-care decisions on behalf of women." If the late Betty Friedan were still alive, she probably would have said: "Keep your hands off my abortion rights."
This latest hiccup in the presidential race by way of a "misspoken" absurdity from a Senate nominee in Missouri obviously can't be blamed on Mitt Romney, who denounced it. But it's another boulder he has to push uphill to break Obama's apparent stranglehold on the women's vote that can more than compensate for his vulnerability with white, male voters.
In selecting Paul Ryan, another firm anti-abortion conservative, as his running mate, Romney decided that solidifying and firing up his base remained his prime objective heading toward election day. That move in itself complicated his task with women advocates of abortion rights, and more so now.
Presidential nominees in an ideal world would be able to speak for themselves and not be burdened with the blundering of party allies. But party allegiance comes at a price, and Mitt Romney is likely to be paying it in this instance among women voters.
Tribune Media Services columnist Jules Witcover's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.