NEW ALBANY, Ind. (AP) - Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said Tuesday when a woman is impregnated during a rape, "it's something God intended."
Mourdock, who's been locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Rep. Joe Donnelly, was asked during the final minutes of a debate 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 happened," Mourdock said.
The race between Mourdock and Donnelly has been one of the nation's most expensive - and most watched - Senate races since the Republican unseated veteran U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar in May's GOP primary. Mourdock's comments come two months after embattled Missouri GOP Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin said during a television interview 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, from GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on down. It was not clear what affect, if any, Mourdock's comment might have during the final two weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
But it quickly placed the tea party-backed candidate on the defensive, one day after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came to Indianapolis for a fundraiser and after the campaign released a spot from Romney asking Hoosiers to support Mourdock.
Indiana Republican Party spokesman Pete Seat referred comment to the Mourdock campaign. A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a spokeswoman for Romney did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday night.
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."
Mourdock further explained after the debate 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."
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's ad featuring Romney is the latest effort to break open the 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.
Top Republicans have been flocking to Indiana. Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham campaigned for Mourdock last week, and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte is due in the state Wednesday.
Romney's coattails carry special significance in deeply conservative Indiana, where Mourdock has underperformed Romney by 12 points in most public polls. Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS also has bought another $1 million of airtime in Indiana, making his group the biggest player in Indiana's Senate race. A message left for Crossroads GPS spokesman Nate Hodson was not immediately returned.
More recently, Mourdock, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress three times before becoming state treasurer, has been trying to woo moderate voters as Donnelly has played up his moderate, three-term voting record in the House.