(NBCNC) - The race for the White House has taken a sharp turn from the economy to women's rights after an anti-abortion Senate candidate questioned whether all rapes are legitimate.
Republican Congressman Todd Akin, running for a Senate seat in Missouri, set off the firestorm, questioning if all rapes are, in his words, "legitimate".
He was arguing against abortion rights for sexual assault victims.
"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," Akin said during an interview with Fox affiliate KTVI.
The issue poses possible damage to the Romney-Ryan presidential campaign.
Women voters already disproportionally back President Obama, who weighed in saying "The views expressed were offensive. Rape is rape."
Senate Democrat Claire McCaskill had been trailing Akin in Missouri polls.
"This is jaw-dropping and stunning," she said.
Akin claimed he misspoke and has deep sympathy for women who are raped.
He later apologized in a radio interview with Mike Huckabee.
"Rape is never legitimate. It's an evil act," Akin said.
Mitt Romney called Akin's original statement "inexcusable".
He favors abortion rights for rape victims, but the uproar is still a problem.
"One, with women voters specifically and secondly with the agenda, it's putting it back on social issues where Republicans don't want be this year. They want to be on the economy," says CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood.
Akin, meanwhile, has said he plans to stay in the race.