If Mitt Romney was hoping the Richard Mourdock story he’s deeply entwined in would go away fast, he apparently didn’t get the memo to one of his top surrogates.
Just as Democrats and the Obama campaign began amping up their effort to highlight Romney’s ties to Mourdock after the Indiana Senate candidate uttered his claim that pregnancies caused by rape are “something that God intended to happen” — and Romney and the Republicans worked to put the moment behind them — John McCain sat down with CNN to throw a wrench in the Republican effort.
Last week, McCain was in Indiana campaigning for Mourdock, who won the Republican nomination by beating the man McCain backed, veteran Sen. Richard Lugar.
Asked if he’s still backing Mourdock following his rape comments Wednesday, McCain instead backed far away from him.
“It depends on what he does. I think it depends on what he does,” McCain said. McCain said that “if he apologizes and says he misspoke and he was wrong and he asks the people to forgive him,” the Arizona Senator would get behind him again.
Both the DSCC and the Obama campaign sent the clip to reporters Wednesday night:
Watch CNN’s version here.
McCain’s response to Mourdock is markedly different from Romney’s as well as many of the other national Republicans who stood behind him as the story unfolded today. Romney, who’s starring in a statewide ad campaign on Mourdock’s behalf, repudiated Mourdock’s comments but promised to stick by him and declined to call on Mourdock to take the TV ads off the air.
“We disagree on the policy regarding exceptions for rape and incest but still support him,” a Romney spokesperson told the New York Observer.
Mourdock held a press conference Wednesday where he attacked his opponents for “twisting” his words at the debate and refused to apologize for them. He did say he was sorry if they had been misinterpreted.
Meanwhile, journalists travelling with Romney during the day reported his campaign kept an especially low profile, suggesting the campaign was hoping to ride out the Mourdock fallout with the presidential race in the homestretch.
McCain’s comments may make it harder for Romney to avoid the story. As will the Obama campaign, which began engaging on Mourdock’s comments directly Wednesday evening. Several tweets tying Romney to Mourdock were posted to the Obama campaign feed, and Team Obama sent out a Mourdock-related email by deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter to its large “Women For Obama” list. She called Romney’s support for Mourdock “a grim reminder” that “Romney has campaigned as a severe conservative, supports severely conservative candidates, and would be a severely conservative president.”
Obama addressed the issue himself in an interview Wednesday night with Jay Leno, saying “these various distinctions about rape don’t make too much sense to me.”
Democratic strategists think Mourdock will break through into the presidential race, even if the Romney campaign appears to believe it can wait it out.
“Any story that fits voters’ pre-existing narrative is likely to have legs,” Paul Begala, top adviser to the super PAC supporting Obama told TPM in an email. “Romney kowtowing to a kook right Republican who wants to take women back to the 19th Century? I’d say that’s a storyline voters are used to: eg, Limbaugh attacking Ms. Fluke.”
With the polls tight and less than two weeks till election day, each campaign is hoping to keep every day clear from distractions and focused on core messages. With assists from Obama and McCain, Mourdock could still cost Romney a few critical days.