The return of Todd Akin? Republicans offer support to embattled Senate candidate

Republicans aren't writing off Todd Akin just yet.

The Missouri congressman, who appeared to have been banished by the Republican Party establishment over his "legitimate rape" remark last month, is slowly -- but steadily -- being brought back into the fold by several prominent conservatives as he presses forward in his race for Senate.

And Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent Akin's trying to unseat and who up to this week had held her fire, began Tuesday to unload on her Republican challenger, signaling the contest could be more competitive and hard-fought than it initially appeared in the aftermath of his remarks.

The message from the Republican establishment just a few weeks ago, when it was trying to pressure Akin out of the race, was that it was done with his candidacy -- cutting off funding and focusing its resources elsewhere.

But now, after the Tuesday deadline for candidates to get out of the race passed, elements of that establishment are treating him with a bit more regard.

"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 Sen. Claire McCaskill," Rob Jesmer, director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, 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."

Recent polls show McCaskill leading by single digits -- hardly an open-and-shut race.

At least a few prominent conservatives see a flicker of a chance for Akin. Missouri's other senator, Republican Roy Blunt, announced Wednesday that he's supporting Akin.

"Congressman Akin and I don't agree on everything, but he and I agree the Senate majority must change. From Gov. Romney to the county courthouse, I'll be working for the Republican ticket in Missouri, and that includes Todd Akin," Blunt said in a statement.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who comes with a political action committee, also got behind the Akin candidacy -- as did former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Former presidential candidate and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich had already started campaigning for Akin.

The sudden endorsements, and notably the statement by the NRSC, represent a potential willingness by some in the party to move beyond the controversy over his claim in a TV interview that a woman's body can often prevent pregnancy during a "legitimate rape."

Akin later apologized as he faced bipartisan condemnation.

With Akin making clear this week he's staying in the race and a few Republicans turning to support him, McCaskill and her Democratic allies pounced -- and tried to make Republicans pay for starting to let him back in the club.

"The statement by national Republicans in support of Todd Akin is absolutely shameful. All Republican candidates across the country are now going to have to answer for their party's support of Akin," Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement.

Murray condemned Akin again on Thursday after he suggested that McCaskill hadn't been "ladylike" in a recent debate.

McCaskill, meanwhile, put out a blistering campaign ad this week highlighting the "legitimate rape" comment and asking: "What will he say next?"

She blasted out a fundraising appeal as soon as the deadline passed for him to withdraw, and warned "Republicans will stop at nothing to beat me."