Akin rebuilding Republican base in Mo. Senate race; McCaskill attempts to peel off GOP support

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- His spot on the ballot now guaranteed, Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin began rebuilding support Wednesday among fellow Republicans who shunned him after a remark about "legitimate rape" while Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill honed an election strategy that will use Akin's own words to portray him as an extremist.

Akin won a pair of high-profile Republican endorsements Wednesday from former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and tea party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint. Perhaps just as importantly, the National Republican Senatorial Committee - which had pulled millions of dollars of planned advertising after Akin's remark - said Wednesday that it hopes Akin wins and cracked open the possibility of again getting involved in the Missouri campaign.

While Akin attempts to shore up support among the Republican base, McCaskill is incorporating Akin's rape comments into a strategy courting politically independent voters and more moderate Republicans. In the coming days, for example, she plans to roll out a "Republicans for Claire" initiative featuring individuals such as Kansas City businessman Warren Erdman, who once served as chief of staff to former Republican Sen. Kit Bond.

McCaskill's goal is "to help folks realize that this election is about more than just party identification," said McCaskill spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki. "It's about a clear choice between Claire - who is a moderate, independent senator for Missouri - and Todd Akin, who is not just too extreme for Missouri, but in a lot of ways too extreme for his own party."

While McCaskill highlights a middle-of-the-pack ranking on a conservative to liberal scale, Akin is attempting to shift the focus away from his own remarks to McCaskill's ties to President Barack Obama and her support for his stimulus act and federal health care overhaul.

"For Akin, the strategy is to try to bring all the Republicans back home - to try to remind Republican voters that he's their candidate and the alternative is electing Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, that many of them don't like," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Akin got off to a good start on that Wednesday, a day after the deadline passed for Missouri candidates to get a court order to withdraw from the Nov. 6 ballot. Santorum and DeMint issued a joint endorsement describing Akin as a "principled conservative" and describing Missouri as an important battleground in Republican efforts to gain the four seats necessary to win control of the Senate from Democrats.

"We support Todd Akin and hope freedom-loving Americans in Missouri and around the country will join us so we can save our country from fiscal collapse," Santorum and DeMint said.

Santorum's Patriot Voices political action committee plans to donate to Akin and has hired staff for an on-the-ground effort in Missouri, said spokeswoman Virginia Davis. The Senate Conservatives Fund, which DeMint helped build, now also is considering coming to Akin's financial aid.

In a fundraising email, Akin said the Santorum and DeMint endorsements "are huge for our campaign and show that real conservative leaders are stepping up."

Akin has apologized repeatedly since a TV interview aired Aug. 19 in which he said women's bodies have a natural defense against pregnancy in cases of what he called "legitimate rape." He rejected calls from top Republicans - including presidential candidate Mitt Romney - to quit. Yet the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Crossroads, a group affiliated with Republican strategist Karl Rove, dropped plans to spend millions of dollars on ads that could have aided Akin.

On Wednesday, NRSC Executive Director Rob Jesmer hinted at the potential to reconsider that decision.

"There is no question that for Missourians who believe we need to stop the reckless Washington spending, rein-in the role of government in people's lives, and finally focus on growing jobs in this country that Todd Akin is a far more preferable candidate than liberal Senator Claire McCaskill," Jesmer said in a statement. "As with every Republican Senate candidate, we hope Todd Akin wins in November and we will continue to monitor this race closely in the days ahead."

Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, described the evolving position of the Republican committee as "absolutely shameful." The Democratic committee already has spent about $1 million on TV ads in Missouri and has reserved $4.3 million of additional advertising between Oct. 9 and Election Day.

As the dropout deadline passed, McCaskill began running an ad in Missouri highlighting Akin's remark about rape as the culmination of comments he made over the past year-and-a-half expressing criticism of Social Security, Medicare, the federal minimum wage and federally financed student loans. But McCaskill's campaign may not pummel TV viewers by repeatedly re-broadcasting Akin's rape remark. Rather, McCaskill plans to use it to help illustrate a broader narrative against Akin.

On Wednesday, for example, Democrats were highlighting Akin's position on earmarks instead of his rape remarks. Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Mike Sanders, a former prosecutor, said he had filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission and the Office of Congressional Ethics alleging Akin had solicited financial support from the Senate Conservatives Fund in exchange for switching his position on earmarks.

Akin has used earmarks in the past, and the Senate Conservatives Fund supports a ban on earmarks, which allot specific amounts of money to specific purposes in a specific state or congressional district. Akin said earlier this week that he supports the earmark ban.

Akin campaign adviser Rick Tyler said the Democratic complaint was "baseless" and "designed to distract voters from Claire McCaskill's liberal voting record."