Before their Oct. 23 debate, the U.S. Senate race pitting Republican state Treasurer Richard Mourdock against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly focused on the future of Social Security and Medicare and whether one candidate is too conservative and the other too liberal.
But Mourdock, 61, Indiana's treasurer since 2007, said that night, "Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen."
His remark catapulted the race, already crucial to control of the Senate, into national headlines and the presidential campaign. Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who had just released an ad supporting Mourdock, declined to withdraw his support, but his campaign said he disagreed with Mourdock's views. President Obama's campaign released a online ad calling Romney and Mourdock "extremists" on women's issues.
Rotary Club members who gathered in a hotel ballroom here last week to hear Donnelly speak were divided on the controversy. Richard Duke, 72, a retired businessman who described himself as a Christian and a moderate who usually votes for Republicans, called Mourdock's take "exactly right."
"He did open a can of worms," Duke said, "and, unfortunately, one has to back off from that to keep oneself in the race."
Jeffrey Walls, 55, a business professor at the Indiana Institute of Technology, was appalled. "If rape is seen as 'it was God's will,' then you would have to logically conclude that God intended that female to be raped," he said.
Donnelly said in an interview that Mourdock's comment "was insulting and wrong to women, to survivors of rape and to their families," but he didn't bring the issue up at the Rotary Club, nor was he asked about it.
The day after the debate, Mourdock said he apologized if his remarks were misconstrued, but said he would be "less than faithful" to his evangelical Christian views if he said "anything other than 'life is precious.' I don't think God would ever want anyone harmed, sexually abused or raped."
Ed Feigenbaum, editor of the Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter, said that in a close race such as this one, the flap "certainly has the potential to impact the outcome" because it raised "an issue that's pretty volatile in the eyes of most voters."
Most polls taken before the candidates' final debate showed neither man with a lead exceeding the margin of error. Libertarian candidate Andrew Horning also is on the ballot.
The contest already has made history: It is the most expensive ever in Indiana, with total spending by the candidates and outside groups topping $20 million. The Republican primary was remarkable because Mourdock defeated Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, a moderate six-term incumbent once so popular that there was no Democratic alternative to him on the 2006 ballot.
In 2008, Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Indiana since 1964, when Lyndon Johnson carried the state. Polls this year, though, have shown Romney with a double-digit lead.
"We are still the same state," Feigenbaum said. "The difference is that people aren't as convinced that the hope and change that Obama was talking about back then was exactly what they had in mind."
Donnelly, 57, invoked Lugar in his Rotary Club appearance, saying he hopes the Republican will be his mentor if he's elected. The congressman, who took office in 2007, is a member of Congress' Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderates. He voted for Obama's Affordable Care Act but tells voters he supports issues on which the president is "wrong," including a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget and a bill approving construction of the Keystone oil pipeline.
Mourdock, a geologist who lost three earlier campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives, has the support of the Tea Party and supports federal spending cuts and a balanced budget. He filed a legal challenge to the Obama administration's bailout of Chrysler in 2009, arguing unsuccessfully that the company's creditors, including three state funds, didn't get sufficient return on their investments.
Friends Mary Levin, 34, and Jerry Walsh, 36, met at an Indianapolis coffee shop last week and found themselves on opposite sides of the campaign.
"If Indiana is going to have any clout on Capitol Hill, then we need someone like Donnelly, who is willing to compromise," said Levin, an administrative assistant who said she usually votes for Democrats. "He's not Dick Lugar, but he seems reasonable like Lugar."
Walsh, an information technology specialist who often votes for Republicans, disagreed.
"Mourdock," he said, "thinks like me and most other people in this state. We're conservative, and we should be proud of that."
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