JEFFERSON CITY — U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill has been traveling Missouri highlighting stark policy differences with her Republican challenger, Rep. Todd Akin. She's cites their stances on federal student loans, school lunches, post offices, taxes, the minimum wage and a seemingly endless list of issues.
One thing McCaskill has seldom discussed is their differences on abortion — even though that's the issue that propelled Missouri's Senate race into the national spotlight when Akin uttered an inflammatory and since-apologized-for remark about women's bodies being able to thwart pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape."
Why has McCaskill not seized upon Akin's remarks as the central point of her campaign?
Perhaps because it is not politically wise to do so — at least not yet, and perhaps not ever. First, there is a matter of timing. She may be better off waiting to exploit Akin's remarks until nearer to Election Day. Second, there's a matter of substance. To highlight Akin's remarks could stir a broader debate about abortion, which potentially could backfire on McCaskill.
Akin opposes abortion, except for rare cases where it is necessary to save the life of a woman. McCaskill supports abortion rights.
Some polls have shown that more Missourians describe themselves as "pro-life" than as "pro-choice." So if McCaskill wants to engage him on abortion, Akin welcomes the discussion. "I do think that we have an advantage there," Akin said.
At a luncheon Friday at the Columbia Pachyderm Club, Akin highlighted several issues on which he differs with McCaskill, including President Barack Obama's health care law, gun rights, what he termed the "Wall Street bailout," the federal budget and abortion. When Akin sought questions from the audience, Wayne Ambrust — who had led the club in the national anthem a little while earlier — instead gave an extended endorsement of Akin and posed a question to the rest of the crowd.
"Who do you think is closest to the Missouri values on abortion — McCaskill, (Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen) Sebelius and Obama? Or Todd Akin? What do you think folks?" Ambrust asked.
"Todd Akin," the audience responded in unison, with applause.
Three days earlier while campaigning before a similarly sized crowd at Westminster College in Fulton, McCaskill also drew a variety of policy differences between herself and Akin. She touted her support for federal grants and student loans. Akin, by contrast, has said it was wrong for the government to take over the issuance of student loans from the private sector and has said "the federal government should be out of the education business."
McCaskill also highlighted differences with Akin on the minimum wage, tax policy, federal funding of school lunches and more. But she never brought up abortion or Akin's remarks about women's bodies being able to repel pregnancy in a "legitimate rape." Nor did the audience, comprised largely of college students.
McCaskill said after the event that she hasn't spoken much about abortion or Akin's comments because she believes voters care more about other issues.
"It's not that I'm reluctant to draw the contrast between us on that subject," McCaskill said.
"I think Missourians know where I stand on that issue. I think they know I've been a vote — and consistent — about reproductive choices for women," McCaskill said. "But I think that there is also a large group of Missourians that think there should be an exception for rape."
Indeed, polls that drill past the general affiliation as "pro-life" or "pro-choice" have found that many people who generally oppose abortion also believe it should be allowed in cases of rape and incest.
Another reason why McCaskill has not focused much on Akin's abortion remarks relates more to political strategy. McCaskill already had scheduled several weeks of statewide tours focused on military veterans, her efforts to prevent the closure of rural post offices and her support for student loans.
And there is another matter of timing.
Although Akin has repeatedly reaffirmed that he will remain in the Senate race, a potential exit door remains open until Sept. 25. That's the latest date under Missouri law by which candidates can get a court order to withdraw from the ballot.
McCaskill doesn't want Akin to quit. To the contrary, she relishes a race against him. Even before Akin's rape remark, McCaskill's strategy had been to portray herself as a moderate and Akin as an extremist. Now McCaskill may be biding her time, waiting until it's legally too late for Akin to quit the Senate race before resurrecting his inflammatory comments in TV ads during the final few weeks before the election.
McCaskill said she hasn't made those advertising decisions yet. But she didn't rule out the strategy.
"We will draw a contrast between what Todd Akin believes and what I believe, and that may include whether or not a rape victim should be allowed to get the morning-after pill," McCaskill said. "But right now, we think it's important to use this opportunity we have to get back on a more positive message."
David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995. He can be reached at http://twitter.com/DavidALieb.