White House hopeful Mitt Romney on Wednesday sought to distance himself from controversial remarks on rape made by a fellow Republican that drew fire less than two weeks ahead of election day.
Anti-abortion Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's statement that pregnancy caused by rape was "something God intended to happen" gave President Barack Obama a new opening to attack his rival's record on women's rights.
With the presidential candidates locked in a virtual tie, women voters in key swing states could decide the November 6 election, and a fresh row over abortion would distract from Romney's focus on the sluggish US economy.
Speaking at a Senate debate late Tuesday, Mourdock said he believed life begins at conception and opposed abortion in all cases except when the mother's life was in danger.
"I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize 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," he said.
Romney's campaign moved to distance him from the remarks, with spokeswoman Andrea Saul saying "Governor Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock's comments, and they do not reflect his views."
Romney has said he opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest, or to save the mother's life.
President Barack Obama has long accused Romney and other Republicans of having extreme views on abortion and other women's rights, and the Democratic National Committee quickly moved to link Romney to Mourdock.
The committee sent a link to a television ad in which Romney endorsed Mourdock, but the ad did not mention abortion or other social issues.
Indiana Democratic Party Chair Dan Parker meanwhile said that, "as a pro-life Catholic, I'm stunned and ashamed that Richard Mourdock believes God intended rape."
"Do we need any more proof that Richard Mourdock is an extremist who's out of touch with Hoosiers?" he asked, referring to Indiana natives.
In an appeal to women during the final presidential debate Monday night, Obama accused Romney of wanting to take America back to the "social policies of the 1950s."
Romney has vowed to be a "pro-life president," and his current presidential platform supports overturning the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, letting states decide on the legality of the practice.
The multimillionaire former venture capitalist has preferred to focus on the economy, arguing that women have suffered from stubbornly high unemployment and that he has the business acumen to speed up the sluggish recovery.
Campaigning earlier Tuesday in Nevada, one of the handful of toss-up states expected to decide the election, Romney said Obama's campaign was 'taking on water" after a trio of debates "supercharged" his own White House bid.
"His is a status quo candidacy. His is a message of going forward with the same policies of the last four years. And that's why his campaign is slipping. And that's why ours is gaining so much steam," Romney said.
Campaigning through Ohio and Florida, Obama accused Romney of suffering from "stage three Romnesia," saying he had forgotten or completely changed his views on a wide range of issues.
"We are accustomed to seeing politicians change their positions from four years ago. We are not accustomed to seeing politicians change their positions from four days ago," Obama told a Florida rally.
Romney led in an average of national polls by 0.7 percent Tuesday, but Obama still held small leads in Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, states that could hand him a second four-year term.
Mourdock's rape gaffe could help the Obama campaign regain momentum.
Another Republican Senate candidate, Todd Akin of Missouri, sparked controversy in August when he said that a woman's body could prevent conception in cases of "legitimate rape."
Those remarks dominated the US news cycle for days, provoking an avalanche of condemnation from both parties and calls by Romney and other Republicans for Akin to quit the race.
Akin apologized but refused to step aside, potentially dashing Republican hopes of wresting back control of the 100-member Senate from Democrats in congressional elections, which will also be held November 6.
Later Wednesday, Obama sets off on a 48-hour sprint through Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Virginia and Ohio, while Romney was due to campaign in Iowa, Ohio and Virginia.