TAMPA, Fla.-Conservative and Christian activists gathered both Wednesday and Thursday nights here in advance of the Republican National Convention to rally around embattled Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin, encouraging him to stay in Missouri's U.S. Senate race against incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill.
Akin is at the center of a political firestorm following comments made Sunday that women's bodies have the ability to prevent pregnancy following "legitimate rape." Akin has repeatedly apologized for the comment and issued a campaign ad this week that concluded with a plea: "I ask for your forgiveness." (See "Akin's angst," by Jamie Dean, Aug. 21.)
The 70 activists gathered Wednesday at Tampa's luxury Grand Hyatt Hotel not only offered forgiveness, many of them also vowed to fight for Akin.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said flatly, "I support him." Perkins addressed the candidate's gaffe directly, looking straight at Akin, who was seated on the front row, and saying to the Missouri congressman, "It was a mistake." Perkins added, though, that any public figure who has not said something that he wished he could take back has "not really been in the game." Perkins said the reaction Akin has generated has been out of proportion to his mistake, and is, rather, part of a strategy by Democrats to "demoralize, discourage, and divide."
Bob Fischer, a South Dakota businessman, organized Wednesday's meeting. Other speakers included Texas pastor and conservative activist Rick Scarborough and author William Federer, who in 2000 lost a tough race against Democrat Dick Gephardt for Missouri's 3rd Congressional District. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson spoke briefly by speaker phone, praising Akin and pledging to do "everything I can" to help Akin.
The meeting included brief remarks from Akin and his wife, Lulli. It concluded with about 15 minutes of prayer, with most of those in the room kneeling by their chairs.
On Thursday night, a slightly larger crowd of 80 to 90 people gathered for a fundraiser led by Dick Bott, founder of the Missouri-based Bott Radio Network, the second largest Christian broadcaster in the country. "The people of Missouri chose Todd," Bott said. "He's our man."
Ken Blackwell, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, told Akin, "I will back you in whatever direction you decide to go." But the former Ohio secretary of state and the first African-American to be a candidate for governor for a major party in Ohio made it clear that he hoped Akin would stay in the race, because if the Democrats and moderate Republicans could force Akin out, they would use the same tactics against other conservatives. Blackwell generated laughter and applause with his closing line: "As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, said, 'Those who are whipped easiest are whipped most often.'"
Akin spoke last, thanking the crowd and saying he was staying in the race because "I believe it's right, and I believe God is calling me to do it. The results are up to God."
But might God call Akin to drop out later on? According to Missouri law, if Akin had dropped out by Tuesday afternoon, the state Republican Party committee could have named a new candidate. But that deadline passed. Akin can still withdraw, but from now until Sept. 25, it will take a court order to do so.
Akin did not make a clear statement either Wednesday or Thursday night that he was staying in until Election Day, though Troy Newman, president of the pro-life group Operation Rescue, said he had received personal assurances from Akin that he was in to stay.
"He's given me his word he intends to stay in," Newman said. "So I'm all in, too." Newman said his group would coordinate a grassroots campaign of pro-life activists on Akins' behalf, and planned to run radio ads in the state.
(After initially agreeing to an interview with WORLD for this article, Akin later reversed that decision.)
Akin and his supporters will have a lot to overcome, as establishment Republicans have distanced themselves from him. GOP heavyweights like House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas have pressured Akin to drop his Senate bid. Missouri Republican politicians, including Sen. Roy Blunt, have also called for his withdrawal. Mitt Romney said Akin should "accept their counsel and exit the Senate race."
Money could be a problem, too. American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, deep-pocketed Republican Super PACs, had been active in the race, but they have stopped spending for ads attacking McCaskill. The groups' founder and Republican strategist Karl Rove said he was "not going to throw good money after bad." A Rasmussen poll conducted Wednesday and released Thursday morning shows McCaskill up 48 to 38 percent. Before Sunday, Akin led in all major polls.
But Akin has his champions, including Mike Huckabee and pro-life groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List and the American Life League. His supporters will likely take comfort in a story Bill Federer told Thursday night about Akin's first race for Congress, in 2000. Akin was the underdog in the Republican primary, running against establishment GOP candidate and St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary. But on Election Day, a severe storm struck in neighborhoods where McNary's support was strong, discouraging turnout there. Akin beat McNary by less than 100 votes-and he hasn't lost an election since.