ST. LOUIS — Rep. Todd Akin's staunchest defender may turn out to be his chief political rival. As the nation's top Republicans urged Akin this week to abandon his Senate race, one of the few politicians content to see him stay was the Democratic incumbent he's trying to unseat.
And why not? Experts agree that the congressman's missteps give Claire McCaskill her best chance to win another term.
McCaskill has been clearly uncomfortable discussing Akin's plight publicly, but she has been steadfast in her insistence that he should not be forced out.
"Missourians who voted in the Republican primary have nominated Todd Akin, and I think this election will provide a very stark contrast between Todd Akin and me," she said Wednesday at a VFW post in suburban St. Louis. "I look forward to showing Missourians how we differ on many issues."
In case reporters didn't get the message, McCaskill gave virtually the exact same answer to four other questions about Akin.
Until about a week ago, Akin was the odds-on favorite to win McCaskill's seat, which is key to GOP ambitions to gain control of the Senate. Because of her close ties to President Barack Obama in an increasingly conservative state, she was considered vulnerable.
But the race was upended when St. Louis television station KTVI aired an interview in which Akin said women's bodies can avoid pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." Akin has since apologized and acknowledged that he was wrong, but the damage was done.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan told Akin to give up, as did many other leading party figures.
But not McCaskill.
Republicans say it's clear she figures she can only win if Akin stays. National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh called her strategy "blatantly transparent."
McCaskill's preference to run against Akin has been clear since before the Aug. 7 primary. Political observers said her TV ads calling Akin "too conservative for Missouri" served two purposes — shoring up Akin's support among conservatives to help him win a tough three-way primary and sowing doubt among moderates.
The state's political landscape has changed significantly since McCaskill, a former Kansas City-area prosecutor and state auditor, narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Jim Talent in 2006. Democratic areas like St. Louis and parts of St. Louis County are losing population. Republican areas like southwest Missouri are getting bigger.
Even after the gaffe, some people believe Akin could still win.
"I think what has happened is it has evened the playing field," Missouri State University political scientist George Connor said. "It's more 50-50 than it was before."
Connor and Washington University in St. Louis political scientist Steven Smith agreed that McCaskill is smart to essentially stay above the fray.
"I think what she wants to do is allow the Akin problem to fester on its own," Smith said. "I think this allows her to more credibly claim that Akin is more radically conservative and she, in contrast, is moderate in substance and style."
McCaskill describes herself as "a good old-fashioned Missouri moderate." She can expect to carry urban areas but knows she'll need to hold her own in rural Missouri. So she's barnstorming the state, boasting about her efforts to keep rural post offices open and to get disaster relief for farmers whose fields were flooded in 2011.
She also points to her support for the federal farm bill that Akin opposed. And she touts what she calls her "balanced" approach to government, seeking to cut waste but protect important programs such as those that provide benefits for veterans.
One issue she's sidestepping is abortion. The Akin comments have brought abortion to the forefront, and Connor said that could help the Republican in the long run since the majority of Missourians are abortion opponents.
Akin's core supporters "aren't going to jump ship to Claire McCaskill because of these comments," Connor said.
McCaskill told reporters at the VFW post that abortion "is one of many subjects there is a contrast with Todd Akin" but declined to go into specifics.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said McCaskill could benefit simply because she is a woman. "This issue is especially relevant because the Republican brand suffers with women voters," he said. "The Akin scandal increases the gap."
One thing the McCaskill campaign and national Democrats won't discuss is what happens if Akin leaves the race, though Democrats are almost certainly planning for any of the handful of names that have been raised as possible replacements.
Regardless of who she faces, McCaskill figures to have a commanding lead in fundraising, at least when the fall campaign beings in earnest after Labor Day. Before the primary, Akin had a little over $530,000 as of July 18. But he has spent steadily on ads since then, and his gaffe has sent many deep-pocketed donors scrambling for the exits.
McCaskill, meanwhile, had about $3.5 million in her campaign account in the most recent federal finance reports. But that may underestimate her position because she had already bought $3 million of TV time for the fall campaign.