DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's talk now about one of this fall's key Senate races. In Missouri, Republican candidate Todd Akin is launching a bus tour today. You may remember he's the congressman whose controversial comments about rape led to calls that he drop out of the race. Today is the last day for Akin to remove himself from the ballot. He has made clear that is not going to happen. But he has an uphill fight to unseat the Democratic incumbent, Claire McCaskill. She has the financial advantage and she has the lead in the polls.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports from St. Louis.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: If there were any doubts that Todd Akin was in the Missouri Senate race to stay, the six-term congressman did his best to dispel them at a news conference yesterday.
REPRESENTATIVE TODD AKIN: For the - about 100th time or so, I am in this race.
AKIN: And the reason I'm in the race is because the people of Missouri chose me to do a job. I take that very seriously and we are going to be totally focused on winning that seat from Claire McCaskill.
NAYLOR: Akin appeared at the quaint Kirkwood, Missouri train station, just outside St. Louis. At his side was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom Akin had invited to town for a $500-a-plate fundraiser at a nearby restaurant. Gingrich, who has bucked the establishment some in his own political career, says it's time for GOP leaders to rally behind, and perhaps more importantly write checks for, the party's nominee.
NEWT GINGRICH: Todd Akin is a key to our winning control of the Senate, and that every Republican has to ask themselves the question, do you really want Harry Reid back as the majority leader?
NAYLOR: Akin has been shunned by Republican leaders since his comment in a TV interview in August that women's bodies have a natural defense against pregnancy in cases of, in his words, legitimate rape. He's since apologized, but Republicans, already facing a yawning gender gap with female voters, have shown little forgiveness. The Republican Senate Campaign Committee has refused to contribute to Akin, in a race it once counted on to help give the GOP a majority in the Senate. Akin, however, says he can still mount a competitive campaign.
AKIN: I think it's going to work out well. It's certainly going to have a lot of grass-roots element to the campaign as well, though, and I think the grass roots is very, very strong and getting stronger. So I think that's a big component, but I do think we'll have the money we need to.
NAYLOR: He's formed a group, Women for Akin, and can count on supporters like Cecelia Dachsteiner, who wore a Tea Party t-shirt and carried an Akin lawn sign.
CECELIA DACHSTEINER: I think he had one poor choice of words and that was it. Sixty seconds doesn't compare to six years of massive tyranny by McCaskill.
NAYLOR: But others in Missouri aren't so ready to look past Akin's comments.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: You can't escape. It's still called rape. You can't escape. It's still called rape.
NAYLOR: A few dozen demonstrators chanted on the sidewalk outside Akin's fundraiser. Many wore pink Planned Parenthood t-shirts. Among them was 73-year-old Susan Cunningham of Pacific, Missouri. She says even if Akin raises enough to run TV ads, he will not win in November.
SUSAN CUNNINGHAM: Not a chance. Not a chance. We're not that stupid. He really is - he's running on the premise that people aren't paying attention, but we are.
NAYLOR: During the Republican primary, McCaskill had made clear her preference to run against Akin, even before his rape comments. At their first debate last week, she called Akin's views extreme.
SENATOR CLARE MCCASKILL: You know, I think Congressman Akin's comments opened the window to his views for Missourians. He has apologized for those comments, but they say a lot about how he views things, and that's where Missourians need to pay attention.
NAYLOR: McCaskill has yet to mention Akin's comments about rape in her TV ads. Washington University professor Steven Smith says she doesn't really need to.
STEVEN SMITH: I think she's going to remain as positive as she can, but focusing on the rape issue really is not necessary. There's hardly a news account in Missouri about this contest that doesn't have a paragraph about his comments on rape.
NAYLOR: McCaskill had more than three million dollars in the bank as of mid-July. Unless Republican leaders have a last minute change of heart, it's unlikely Akin can match that. His best chance will be a big turnout by his base, including Missouri's large number of evangelical voters, hoping that they'll prove he was right to stay in the race. Brian Naylor, NPR News, St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.