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Akin's folly, Obama's opportunity

Mark Mardell
North America editor
@BBCMarkMardellon Twitter

image copyrightAP
image captionWere Akin's comments simply "mistakes" or something more?

"The mistake was in the words I said, not in the heart I hold."

So said Todd Akin, who finds himself at the centre of a firestorm that is dominating the election campaign.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney has called on him to withdraw from the Senate race, but the Obama campaign won't let it rest there.

Expect them to stir the pot again today with a mass email to remind liberal voters of previous Republican forays into similar issues.

President Obama reacted with alacrity on Monday, saying the notion of "legitimate rape" was "way out there".

His quickly mounted assault is deeply political - it allowed him to attack the idea of "a bunch of politicians making healthcare decisions on behalf of women".

Odd and odder

This fits neatly with the Democrats' allegation that some conservative Republicans want to wage a "war on women": subjecting them to intrusive scans before an abortion and denying them contraception if their employer disagrees with it (there are many Catholic universities and hospitals in the States).

Those Republicans will retort they are talking about the rights of the unborn child and religious freedoms, but that may not impress those the president wants to fret about the prospect of a Republican victory.

He already has a lead with women and he wants to increase it by suggesting Republicans want to impinge on their rights.

But it is bigger than that. It distracts voters' attention away from the economy, and to what are quaintly called "cultural issues".

To you and me that means attitudes towards sex. Mr Obama's narrative is that victorious Republicans would turn the clock back to the 50s.

Behind Mr Akin's odd phrases and odder understanding of medicine is a belief that abortion is wrong, in all circumstances, even when a woman has been raped.

This is perfectly logical. If abortion is murder, it doesn't stop being murder because of the circumstances of a child's conception.

But many Republicans and many voters are a little more hazy in their logic and more pragmatic in their positioning.

Mr Romney has responded quickly and firmly to Akin's remarks. But if the Obama campaign prods him for more definite answers on this central question it is more difficult.

That's exactly why they are doing it. If Mr Romney backs abortion in some cases, he risks losing the enthusiasm of some conservative voters.

If he suggests it should be outlawed in all cases, he risks losing support in the middle ground.

As for Mr Akin, as so often, his "gaffe" was a compound of more than one mistake.

The phrase "legitimate rape" is ugly and bound to offend. He obviously didn't mean that some rapes were acceptable, but it sounded as if he did.

Truly bizarre

I presume he meant "real" rape, which suggests he either thinks some rapes are not real because women aren't telling the truth, or that a rape is not "real" unless it is accompanied with a high degree of violence.

Many will find either interpretation pretty repulsive. If someone talked about "legitimate murder" or "legitimate burglary", we would be left scratching our heads as to what they meant.

But he was only using the phrase to promote his theory that women who are raped can't get pregnant, because their body shuts down. This is truly bizarre.

I have never heard anything like it before, but apparently it is not the first time an American politician has raised it.

During a 1998 Senate campaign in Arkansas, the Republican candidate Dr Fay Boozman claimed that hormones generated by fear usually prevented rape victims from getting pregnant.

Yet it is much older than that, indeed a favourite theory of 13th Century medicine.

Mr Akin may have many admirable qualities which recommend him to the voters of Missouri. But it seems strange that a 21st Century politician is willing to legislate on the grounds of old wives' tales.

Perhaps he should be explaining that, rather than his clumsy use of language.