By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For Republicans, it could be another lost week in their effort to keep November's election focused on President Barack Obama's handling of the weak U.S. economy.
After much of the summer news cycle was dominated by immigration, Obama's healthcare overhaul, Medicare and a gaffe-ridden foreign trip by Mitt Romney, the Todd Akin controversy is further obscuring the Republicans' central message on jobs.
Uproar over comments by Republican congressman Akin that women's bodies automatically protect them from impregnation after "legitimate rape" is also overshadowing the buildup to the party convention in Tampa next week.
Despite appeals from Romney and other leading Republicans, Akin refused to quit the Missouri Senate race before a deadline on Tuesday, increasing the party's risk of losing women's votes and distracting from Romney's message on the economy.
Vowing not to bow to pressure from "party bosses", Akin said he would remain in the contest against Democratic U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill to respect the wishes of Missouri voters.
But he left open the possibility of pulling out.
"I'm never going to say everything that could possibly happen. I don't know the future," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Republicans fear the Akin episode could not only damage Romney's White House bid but also prevent them from winning the Senate seat in Missouri. That could have important national consequences as it might end their chances at the four-seat net gain they need ensure a majority in the 100-member Senate.
Democrats are linking Akin to Romney's vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan, a staunch opponent of abortion rights.
"I just think that what Akin's done has been damaging not just to him, not just to other candidates in Missouri, not just to our ability to win Missouri at the presidential level, but to Ryan and to Republicans across the country," Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said.
Romney, running neck-and-neck with Obama in opinion polls, is also at risk of being hurt by the controversy just as he seeks positive headlines before next week's convention.
An anti-abortion physician who is the source of Akin's widely ridiculed claim that trauma caused by rape makes a woman's reproductive system shut down was a prominent Romney supporter when he first ran for president four years ago.
Romney called the doctor, Jack Willke, "an important surrogate" in 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported.
AKIN STANDS ON "PRINCIPLE"
A fervent opponent of abortion rights, Akin says his convictions are keeping him in the Missouri race.
"It's about trying to do the right thing and stand on principle," he told NBC's "Today" program.
Akin apologized again in multiple television interviews on Wednesday for his earlier remarks but refused to bow out. "The people of Missouri chose me, and I don't believe it's right for party bosses to decide to override those voters," he told ABC.
Akin has another deadline - September 25 - to take his name off the ballot in Missouri, but that would be far too late to prevent damage at the Republican National Convention.
Republicans hope to use the Tampa gathering to reinvent millionaire former Massachusetts Governor Romney as a warmer, less aloof man than the image that is often cast of him.
A strong convention performance will launch Romney into the last two months before the November 6 election on a high note he has rarely achieved. The Akin affair would then quickly be forgotten, said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.
"If they hit the ball out of the park in Tampa we're not going to be talking about this," he said.
Akin has so far resisted huge pressure from the party to quit, although he may eventually hit money problems especially since a Senate Republican funding group held back $5 million it had intended to spend on his behalf.
A Super PAC linked to strategist Karl Rove, which has already spent $4.5 million in Missouri, said it will not spend any more on the Missouri contest if Akin is in the race.
"We assume Akin will stay in and that it will be much more difficult for him to win than it would have been before he made those comments. I don't know if further down the road if he really does lack funds, if he might reconsider," said Peverill Squire, a University of Missouri political science professor.
A fundraising website bannered "Help Todd Fight Back Against the Liberal Elite," said he had raised almost $30,000 by Wednesday afternoon.
(Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and Doina Chiacu)