WASHINGTON -- When Todd Akin sneezes, Paul Ryan catches a cold.
The Republicans' soon-to-be nominee for vice president is supposed to be delivering a message about jobs and the economy, but he's finding he cannot escape his longtime House colleague, now a national pariah for his exotic views on rape.
"His statements were outrageous, over the pale. I don't know anybody who would agree with that. Rape is rape, period, end of story," Ryan told Pittsburgh's KDKA-TV in the first in a series of local TV interviews.
Except it wasn't the end of the story. The questions were just beginning.
"Rape is rape. Rape is rape, period. End of story," Ryan replied to another query.
"Rape is rape, and there's no splitting hairs over rape," he answered yet again.
Ryan is surely aching to talk about something other than Akin. But the outrage set off by the Republicans' Senate nominee in Missouri has consumed the political world. It has been particularly harmful to Ryan, who has served for more than a decade with Akin, recently hailing him as "a great asset" on Ryan's budget committee and an example of "exactly the kind of leadership America needs."
More problematic in this situation: Ryan has the same antiabortion position as Akin -- no exceptions -- and some of the nearly 40 abortion bills he has co-sponsored have provided no exemption for rape victims.
This is more random bad luck for Mitt Romney, who has had more than his share in recent days. His running mate, chosen for his green-eyeshade savvy, has unexpectedly become a lightning rod in the culture wars, in an area where Republicans are at a decided disadvantage. Only 20 percent of Americans agree with Ryan and Akin that abortion should be illegal in all cases, according to a Gallup poll in May.
Akin, in an interview Wednesday morning with NBC's Matt Lauer, confirmed that Ryan had called to try to push him from the race after his "legitimate rape" remark and his fanciful claim that women's bodies could reject the sperm of rapists. "He felt that I had to make a decision, but he advised me that it would be good for me to step down," said Akin, who rebuffed Ryan.
"It's as you would imagine," Ryan said when asked aboard his campaign plane later for his version of the call. "And I'll keep it between us." Ryan repeated his view that Akin "should've dropped out of the race, but he's not. He's going to run his campaign. We're going to run ours."
Would he call Akin again?
"I have no plans to," the candidate said.
Surely Ryan would like to call Akin all kinds of colorful things for throwing Republicans badly off message on the eve of their convention. Romney, party officials and even Rush Limbaugh have called for him to quit. Akin's dwindling list of supporters is down to a motley assortment of abortion hard-liners who applaud his no-exceptions stance.
Ryan has already surrendered that position. "Look, I'm proud of my record," he told reporters on his plane, but "Mitt Romney is going to be president, and the president sets policy. His policy is exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. I'm comfortable with it because it's a good step in the right direction."
Does he now regret his sponsorship of legislation that made a distinction between "forcible rape" and other kinds -- a position eerily similar to Akin's "legitimate rape"?
"That bill passed, I think, by 251 votes," Ryan replied. "It was bipartisan." He neglected to mention that it passed after removal of the "forcible" language.
The candidate tried to guide the reporters back to friendlier topics. "This is fantastic," he said of his brief time on the trail. "The encouragement from the crowds is just amazing. It's an infectious enthusiasm."
Perhaps, but that's not the dominant strain infecting Ryan's candidacy at the moment.
Dana Milbank's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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