By BETH FOUHY and JULIE PACE
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan found themselves dragged into a debate Wednesday over hot-button social issues and answering for differences between their personal positions on abortion, just days before a national convention aimed at showing a unified Republican party. The discussion lingered while President Barack Obama and Romney tangled from afar over issues like education and the deficit.
The GOP ticket dealt with a renewed focus on abortion in the wake of comments about "legitimate rape" from Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, remarks that have caused an uproar and generated demands from Romney and party leaders for the congressman to quit the race.
The questions over abortion overshadowed events by Romney and Ryan in the battleground states of Iowa, North Carolina and Virginia — three states which Obama carried in 2008 — ahead of next week's Republican convention in Tampa, Fla. Obama rallied supporters in Nevada, the state with the nation's highest unemployment rate of 12 percent, before heading to New York for a basketball-themed fundraiser.
Since selecting Ryan as his running mate, Romney has faced questions about how his policy positions differ from those espoused by Ryan, the architect of a controversial budget blueprint that would dramatically alter Medicare. On abortion, Romney does not oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest or if it will save the mother's life, while Ryan does oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest.
Ryan, in an interview with a Pennsylvania TV station, emphasized Romney's role at the top of the ticket, saying he was proud of his record on the social issue. "I stand by my pro-life record in Congress. It's something I'm proud of. But Mitt Romney is the top of the ticket and Mitt Romney will be president and he will set the policy of the Romney administration," he said.
Ryan defended a bill he cosponsored in the House to permanently ban federal funding for abortion except in cases of incest and "forcible" rape. That language, which was eventually changed, would have narrowed the exception for rape victims. Akin and 225 other members of the House, including 11 Democrats, also cosponsored the bill.
Akin, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in a race that could determine control of the Senate, was asked in an interview that aired Sunday if abortion should be legal in cases of rape. Akin said: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
Obama mocked Akin's words during a fundraiser in New York City, telling supporters Wednesday night that Akin, though a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, "somehow missed science class."
Obama added: "It's representative of the desire to go backwards instead of forwards and fight fights that we thought were settled 20 or 30 years ago."
Democrats have tried to tactfully steer the debate over abortion to appeal to female voters, including those living in hotly contested suburbs in battleground states such as Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Obama did not address Akin's comments while campaigning in Nevada, but his campaign honed in on the legislation related to federal funding for abortions. Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said Ryan had "worked with Todd Akin to try to narrow the definition of rape and outlaw abortion even for rape victims."
A new AP-GfK poll found that Obama maintained a slight lead among women voters, with 50 percent of women backing the president and 44 percent supporting Romney. The gender gap was similar to a finding in a June AP-GfK poll. Men were more closely divided in the latest AP-GfK poll, with 49 percent for Romney and 44 percent for Obama. In the suburbs, the candidates were closely divided, with 47 percent supporting Romney and 44 percent for Obama.
Akin has refused to heed calls to step down and now would need a court order by Sept. 25 to leave the race. After that point, there would be no way to remove his name from the ballot. Ryan called the Missouri congressman and unsuccessfully urged him to exit the race, but he said he had no other plans to speak to him about it.
"He's going to run his campaign and we're going to run ours," Ryan said of Akin.
Campaigning in Iowa, Romney avoided talk of social issues during a stop at a manufacturing company in Bettendorf, instead criticizing Obama for failing to bring down the nation's debt and deficit.
Later, during a fundraiser in Little Rock, Ark., Romney called Wednesday a "very revealing day" because of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office's warnings of a new recession — including unemployment rates of more than 9 percent by late next year — if Washington continues its stalemate over taxes and spending cuts. Romney said the CBO's conclusions were "unacceptable."
"This is a challenging time for America and one thin g I will do is I will finally cut federal spending, encourage growth and as a result of those two things get America to a balanced budget," Romney said.
Obama focused on education for a second straight day in Nevada, telling supporters at a North Las Vegas high school that GOP budget plans crafted by Ryan would force dramatic education cuts even as Romney's plan would "shower" tax cuts on millionaires.
"I've got a question for Gov. Romney. How many teachers' jobs are worth another tax cut for millionaires and billionaires? How many kids in Head Start are worth a tax cut for somebody like me who doesn't need it? How many grants and loans for college students are worth a tax cut for Gov. Romney who certainly doesn't need it?" Obama asked the crowd.
Romney countered that he heard the president "say how he wants to invest in young people. Let me tell you, if you want to invest in young people ... you need to make sure that our K-12 schools are getting better. That's No. 1. Not just talk, but actually getting better." He added that the nation needs "to make sure that we create jobs in this country so people coming out of school can get a good job."
Beyond the rallies, both campaigns were trying to sway voters on television. Romney's campaign released a new ad linking Obama's divisive health care overhaul to cuts in Medicare. The ad, titled "Nothing's Free," asserts that Obama raided $716 billion from Medicare in order to pay for his health care law. It's the first ad Romney's campaign has run focusing on health care since the Supreme Court upheld Obama's federal mandate in June.
Romney has promised to roll back the Medicare spending cuts approved under Obama, while Ryan kept the cuts in his budget proposals. The campaign did not say where the health care ad would run.
The Obama campaign released an ad suggesting Ryan's education cuts would lead to larger class sizes. A couple featured in the ad bemoans the prospect of increased class size and says Romney "cannot relate" to their desire to have the best public education system for their children. The ad is running in Virginia and Ohio.
With Republicans closing in on their convention, Obama's team is trying to steal some of the spotlight. Obama planned campaign events on college campuses in Iowa and Colorado on Tuesday — including an evening rally in Fort Collins, Colo., on the GOP convention's first night — and in Virginia on Wednesday. Vice President Joe Biden was traveling to Florida on Monday and Tuesday, including a stop in Tampa, and popular first lady Michelle Obama was appearing on "The Late Show with David Letterman" on Wednesday, a show that will air shortly after Ryan's address to the convention.
Obama won all four states in 2008 and are considered pivotal to Romney's path to the White House this year.
Pace reported from Bettendorf, Iowa. Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt, Ken Thomas, Mark S. Smith and Jennifer Agiesta in Washington, and Jim Kuhnhenn in North Las Vegas, Nev., contributed to this report.