NEW ALBANY, Ind. – Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock on Wednesday defended and sought to his explain his remark that pregnancy resulting from rape can be "something that God intended," as party leaders carefully responded to the incident.
Mourdock made the comment when asked during a debate Tuesday whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.
"I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen," Mourdock said.
The candidate explained afterward that he was referring to pregnancy, and nothing else.
"I made a comment that I made quite honestly from the deepest roots and the greatest base of my faith which is to say that I believe life is precious. I believe that to the marrow of my bones. I believe that life itself is the greatest gift that God can give us," he said, adding: "I absolutely abhor violence. I abhor any kind of sexual violence. I abhor rape."
Mourdock went on to express regret for his phrasing.
"If because of the lack of clarity in my words that they came away with an impression other than those that I stated a moment ago -- that life is precious and that I abhor violence and I am confident God abhors violence and rape -- if they came away with any impression other than that, I truly regret it and I apologize if they came away."
Republicans leaders were divided in their response to the controversy.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney distanced himself from the statement.
"Gov. Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views," spokeswoman Andrea Saul told Fox News.
A campaign source, though, said they have not asked the campaign to pull an ad featuring Romney, making clear the Republican nominee still supports him despite disagreements with Mourdock over exceptions for cases of rape and incest in their anti-abortion position.
Republican New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte also cancelled a trip to Indiana after the remark. "She disagrees with Treasurer Mourdock's comments, which do not represent her views," an aide said.
Mourdock is facing Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in the Senate race.
The comment comes after Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin said in August that women's bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of what he called "legitimate rape." Akin has repeatedly apologized but has refused to leave his race despite calls to do so by leaders of his own party, including Romney.
Sen. John Cornyn, head of the Republicans' Senate campaign arm, effectively cut off Akin after that comment. However, Cornyn defended Mourdock on Wednesday.
"Richard and I, along with millions of Americans -- including even Joe Donnelly -- believe that life is a gift from God. To try and construe his words as anything other than a restatement of that belief is irresponsible and ridiculous," Cornyn said in a statement.
Mourdock's comments shake Republicans as they try to gain a majority in the Senate.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz described Mourdock's comments as "outrageous and demeaning to women" and called on Romney to take his pro-Mourdock ad off the air.
"Enough is enough. The Republican Party needs to stop the coddling and take a stand against the horribly offensive and dangerous views of the Tea Party and their extreme candidates," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.