By Patricia Zengerle and David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior Republicans scrambled to distance themselves on Monday from Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's comments about rape, which put an unwelcome focus on divisive social issues a week before the party gathers for its national convention.
The remarks cast doubt on what had seemed a likely victory for the Missouri congressman over Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill on November 6, when Republicans need to capture just four Democratic seats to win a majority in the Senate.
President Barack Obama called the remarks offensive during a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room on Monday. "Rape is rape," he said, in what became his first news conference with the White House press corps in months.
Akin said in a television interview on Sunday that women have biological defenses to prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape," making legal abortion rights unnecessary.
He said later he misspoke when he made the comments, and apologized, but had no plans to resign from the Senate race.
"I'm not a quitter," Akin said on a radio show hosted by former Governor Mike Huckabee, a favorite of religious conservative Republicans.
Akin said he was talking about "forcible rape," adding, "Rape is never legitimate."
Sharp rebuttals and calls to step aside from members of his own party had raised questions about whether Akin should drop out of the Missouri race. Democrats seized on Akin's comment to underscore their election-year position that Republicans -- who polls show generally trail Democrats among women voters -- are waging a "war on women."
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney blasted Akin's comments.
"Congressman Akin's comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong," Romney told the National Review online on Monday.
Romney's campaign distanced itself from Akin's position on Sunday, saying a Romney administration would not oppose abortion in case of rape.
McCaskill, one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats in a state that has shifted to the right since she was elected in 2006, fired off a rebuke. Noting she dealt with rape cases when she was a prosecutor, the first-term senator said she was "stunned" by Akin's comments.
Akin, a six-term congressman from the St. Louis suburbs, won the Republican nomination to oppose McCaskill just two weeks ago after a hard-fought three-way primary race. McCaskill's campaign spent heavily to help him, viewing him as a far-right conservative who would be easier to defeat in November than a more moderate opponent.
(Addditional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)
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