Rape storm mars notion of Republican unity

2012-08-23 08:11
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. (AP, File)

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. (AP, File)

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Washington - The Republican national convention was planned as a festival of unity to formally anoint Mitt Romney as challenger to President Barack Obama, but instead it will open on Monday with the party in turmoil over a fellow Republican's startling remarks about abortion for victims of "legitimate rape".

The political heat over that issue deflects attention away from the struggling economic recovery from the Great Recession, the issue that Republicans see as their best chance to win the White House.

What's more, the perennially hot-button abortion issue has shined a light on differences between Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, who was slotted in as vice presidential candidate less than two weeks ago.

Romney does not oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest or if it will save the mother's life, while Ryan does oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest.

That divide, in turn, compounds the troubled Republican unity narrative and reflects the party's fundamental difficulties in trying to accommodate the ultra-conservative ideologies of an increasingly powerful base of evangelical Christians and low-tax, small-government tea party adherents.

The latest uproar began when Republican Congressman Todd Akin, who is running for a Senate seat from Missouri, set off an explosion with his response to a radio interviewer's question about abortion rights for rape victims.

Neck and neck

"It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," said Akin, who, like Ryan, opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

The Republican establishment — Romney and Ryan included — immediately denounced Akin's remarks and demanded he withdraw from the race.

Akin has refused, insisting he will stay in the contest against Senator Claire McCaskill, an endangered Democrat whose seat is seen as key to Republican hopes to gain majority control of the Senate.

With the 6 November election less than three months away, polls show Romney and President Barack Obama locked in a virtual tie heading into their party conventions. The Republicans gather Monday in Florida; the Democrats assemble eight days later in North Carolina.

Obama's hopes for re-election are feeling a heavy drag from the weak US economic recovery from the Great Recession and the near meltdown of the US financial system in late 2008, shortly before he won his first term in the White House. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 8.3%.

The economy and jobs, voters tell pollsters, are the top issues in the election.

Ladies' man

Romney, who amassed a quarter-billion dollar fortune as leader of a private equity company, says his success in the world of big business is just the medicine needed to heal the ailing economy. Polls show more voters trust Romney's stewardship for revving up the mediocre recovery.

While polls show Romney and Obama tied overall, the latest Associated Press-GFK poll, however, shows Obama with a commanding lead as the candidate who better "understands the problems of people like you", 51% to 36% for Romney. Around 50% see him as a stronger leader than Romney.

Obama also has a big lead among women voters. They would be most dramatically affected if Republicans in Congress were able to pass a law making the procedure illegal.

In 1973, the US Supreme Court ruled that abortion was a legal right. Opponents have fought unsuccessfully ever since to overturn that ruling.

Beyond that, the heat in and growing power of the wing of the Republican party that would deny abortion to victims of rape and incest might drive away moderate voters who had been leaning toward Romney's message as a businessman who can fix the economy.

"There's a good chance that moderate voters who backed Romney on the economy and were willing to overlook the party's stand on social issues now will have a lot harder time voting Republican," said Melody Crowder-Meyer, a political scientist who studies voter attitudes at Sewanee: The University of the South.

Ryan takes the back seat

Crowder-Meyer also said that Akin's position on abortion draws attention to that of Ryan, who has co-sponsored legislation with the Missouri congressman to deny abortions to rape and incest victims.

That appeared to be worrying Ryan as well. On Ryan he said his views would take a back seat to Romney's.

Speaking to a Pennsylvania television station, the vice presidential candidate emphasised anew that Romney is at the top of the Republican ticket.

"I'm proud of my pro-life record. And I stand by my pro-life record in Congress. It's something I'm proud of. But Mitt Romney is the top of the ticket and Mitt Romney will be president and he will set the policy of the Romney administration," Ryan said.

That's a good stab at cementing party unity, but also leaves Romney open to questions about his changed position on abortion.

When he ran for governor of the politically moderate state of Massachusetts, Romney supported abortion rights. As the presidential candidate of an increasingly conservative Republican party, he doesn't.

Were that not trouble enough, the Republicans have to start worrying about the weather. Hurricane Isaac is crossing the Caribbean and forecasters say it has drawn a bead on Tampa, Florida. It might be arriving just as conventioneers begin descending on the city.

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