By Susan Guyett
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - The Republican candidate for the Senate in Indiana, Richard Mourdock, said on Wednesday he was sorry if anyone misunderstood a comment on rape and abortion, and White House hopeful Mitt Romney's campaign said he would stand by the controversial candidate.
Mourdock made comments at a Senate debate on Tuesday night that some critics interpreted as condoning rape. At a hastily called news conference on Wednesday, Mourdock said he abhors rape and violence against women.
"I apologize that they came away" with that interpretation, he said. "And I have certainly been humbled by the fact that so many people think that somehow was an interpretation."
When he explained at Tuesday night's debate that the only exception to a ban on abortion should be for the life of a mother, Mourdock said: "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 God intended to happen."
The Mourdock incident was the second time during the 2012 election campaign that a conservative Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate made controversial remarks about rape.
Missouri candidate Todd Akin said in August that women have natural defenses against pregnancy from "legitimate rape." Republicans disavowed Akin's comment and he has trailed Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill in most polls since then.
Former Massachusetts governor Romney's spokeswoman Andrea Saul said: "Governor Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock ... We disagree on the policy regarding exceptions for rape and incest but still support him."
Earlier in the week, the Mourdock campaign issued a television and radio ad featuring Romney's endorsement of the Indiana Republican, saying that Mourdock's vote in the Senate could be crucial to repealing Obama's health reform law.
Romney's campaign said he would not pull the ad supporting Mourdock despite Democratic calls for him to do so.
President Barack Obama's campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the president believed Mourdock's comment was "outrageous and demeaning to women," and it was "perplexing" that Romney had not demanded the ads be scrapped.
"This is a reminder that a Republican Congress working with a Republican president, Mitt Romney, would feel that women should not be able to make choices about their own healthcare," Psaki told reporters traveling with the president on Air Force One to the swing state of Iowa.
Mourdock defeated longtime Senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, dividing the Republican Party. He has since struggled to establish a significant lead in polls against Democratic Congressman Joe Donnelly.
Loss of what was once considered a safe Republican seat in Indiana would be a severe blow to Republican hopes of taking control of the Senate. Republicans need to make a net gain of four Senate seats to win the majority.
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor responsible for Senate races at The Cook Political Report, said it will take a few days to determine if the flap has damaged Mourdock.
"This isn't the Akin debacle all over again," Duffy said, referring to the Missouri candidate shunned by his party. "It is far more nuanced."
Mourdock was not qualifying rape the way that Akin did, using the words "legitimate rape," she said.
Another difference is that Donnelly is against abortion and has to walk a fine line in criticizing Mourdock. Akin's opponent in Missouri, McCaskill, favors abortion rights.
While Romney and some others in the Republican party have criticized Mourdock's comments, they are still supporting him in the election in contrast to Akin, who was abandoned by the party establishment, Duffy said.
(Additional reporting by David Bailey and Jeff Mason; Writing by Greg McCune; editing by Stacey Joyce and Philip Barbara)