INDIANAPOLIS -- Republican Richard Mourdock's comments on rape and pregnancy burst into a national political issue overnight, with Democrats pouncing and connecting him to Mitt Romney while Republicans are scrambling to figure out whether any serious damage has been done in a race that could tip the balance of power in the Senate.
Early Wednesday, the Republican nominee for Indiana governor called on Mourdock to apologize.
"I strongly disagree with the statement made by Richard Mourdock during last night's Senate debate," Rep. Mike Pence, the GOP nominee for governor. "I urge him to apologize."
But the National Republican Senatorial Committee backed Mourdock, saying his comments about a pregnancy from a rape being part of God's will had been misconstrued.
Pence's statement comes as both sides began to assess whether Mourdock's comments could change the dynamics of a neck-and-neck Senate race against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly.
President Barack Obama's campaign and Democrats across the country sought to tie Mourdock's comments to Romney, as both sides make a serious push for women voters who could decide the election.
Mourdock is expected to address the matter when he stumps with New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte here later Wednesday. The question now facing Republicans is whether this is a 24-hour news story, or if the issue will haunt the GOP heading into an election less than two weeks away.
Democrats are moving to keep it alive.
"This is an issue where Mitt Romney is starring in an ad for this senator, and it is perplexing that he wouldn't demand to have that ad taken down," Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday. "I think it is clear that Mitt Romney, that many Republicans who are running for office including him, including Mr. Mourdock have very extreme positions on issue that women care deeply about in this country."
The rush of comments from both sides shows just how much such comments can rattle a campaign at this stage in the election cycle. Mourdock's comments came as he was discussing his opposition to abortion in all cases, except in the case of saving the life of a mother.
Donnelly opposes abortion but supports exceptions for victims of rape and incest and to save the life of a mother.
"I know there are some who disagree and I respect their point of view but I believe that life begins at conception," Mourdock said somberly at the debate. "The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother."
But Mourdock quickly added: "I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."
Obama's campaign pounced Wednesday morning, given that Romney has stumped for Mourdock and the GOP nominee cut an ad for the Senate candidate this week calling on Hoosier voters to make him the 51st Senate vote.
On Tuesday night, Romney's campaign distanced itself from the statement but did not pull the candidate's endorsement of Mourdock.
"Gov. Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views," campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
Mourdock's campaign quickly put out a statement Tuesday dismissing the criticism after the debate.
"God creates life, and that was my point," Mourdock said. "God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that He does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick."
Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, came to Mourdock's defense Wednesday morning.
"Richard and I, along with millions of Americans - including even Joe Donnelly - believe that life is a gift from God," Cornyn said. "To try and construe his words as anything other than a restatement of that belief is irresponsible and ridiculous."
Cornyn added: "But this election is about big ideas and the reality that our country is going in the wrong direction. If you support Obamacare, government bailouts, reckless spending and higher taxes than you should vote for Joe Donnelly. But if you believe, as I do, that our government is too big, our taxes are too high, and we are passing an irresponsible debt onto future generations, than Richard Mourdock is your candidate to help get our country back on track."
Still, Democrats immediately jumped on the comment that the pregnancies were the result of God's will, comparing it to the firestorm that has devastated the Senate bid of Missouri Republican Todd Akin for saying "legitimate rape" rarely causes pregnancies because female bodies shut down. Akin later apologized, but his campaign has yet to fully recover.
"If Mitt Romney is serious about repudiating these heinous views on rape, he will take down this ad immediately," said Washington Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "National Republicans cannot paper over Richard Mourdock's heinous views on rape. Enough is enough."
Indeed, some Republicans sought to cover themselves from political backlash.
Sen. Scott Brown, who is facing a tough battle for reelection against Democrat Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, distanced himself Wednesday.
"Scott Brown is pro-choice and does not agree with the views expressed by Richard Mourdock," said Brown spokeswoman Alleigh Marre. "They do not reflect his thinking at all."
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