By Patricia Zengerle and David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior Republicans distanced themselves on Monday from Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's comments about rape, which put an unwelcome focus on divisive social issues just a week before the party gathers for its national convention.
The remarks cast doubt on what had seemed a likely victory for Akin, a Missouri congressman seeking to unseat Democrat Senator Claire McCaskill in the November 6 election and capturing one of the four Senate seats Republicans need to win a majority in the Senate.
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.
Sharp rebuttals from members of his own party raised questions about whether Akin would drop out of the Missouri race. Democrats, meanwhile, 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. "Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive."
Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, who faces his own tight re-election fight this year against a woman Democrat, Elizabeth Warren, called Akin's comments "outrageous, inappropriate and wrong."
"There is no place in our public discourse for this type of offensive thinking. Not only should he apologize, but I believe Rep. Akin's statement was so far out of bounds that he should resign the nomination for U.S. Senate in Missouri," Brown said in a statement.
Romney's campaign distanced itself from Akin's position on Sunday, saying a Romney administration would not oppose abortion in case of rape.
Akin, a Tea Party-backed conservative who opposes abortion, later said he "misspoke" in the interview with KTVI television in St. Louis.
Akin's remarks drew swift protest from McCaskill and other Democrats. Polls show many Republicans including Romney already trail among women voters, and President Barack Obama's party has made charges of a Republican "war on women" a feature of his re-election campaign.
Akin said in the television interview that the need for abortions in the case of rape was "a particularly tough ethical question."
"It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that is really rare," Akin said of pregnancy caused by rape. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," he said.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)
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