TAMPA — This is the convention prelude of the Republicans' dreams — their nightmares, that is.
Mitt Romney wanted to preside over a made-for-TV gathering showcasing his economic credentials and GOP unity. Instead, he's heading to Tampa with the national debate focused on rape and abortion and with the divisions within his party — and with running mate Paul Ryan — on full display.
"It's a huge distraction," Saul Anuzis, a RNC member from Michigan and a top Romney backer, said of the emotional quarreling touched off by embattled Missouri Rep. Todd Akin this week. "We should be talking about the economy and here we are consumed by these side issues."
All this as a new Associated Press-GfK poll showed a neck-and-neck race between Romney and President Barack Obama just over two months before the election. Some 47 percent of registered voters say they plan to vote for Obama, while 46 percent favor Romney. That's virtually the same as last month — and evidence that Romney didn't get a bounce of support by choosing Ryan as his vice presidential nominee.
Just as the party seemed to be moving past deep divisions between its establishment and conservative wings in the name of rallying behind its presidential nominee and beating Obama, the ticket found itself overshadowed by the uproar over Akin's refusal to drop out of his Senate race. He also has bucked calls from top Republicans — including Romney and Ryan — to abandon his bid.
Akin's comments have caused a furor in the Republican Party as it's trying to narrow the advantage Obama and the Democrats have among women voters. And the debate has highlighted fissures within the GOP over when abortion should be legal. Romney does not oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest or if it will save a mother's life, while Ryan does oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest.
Underscoring the split, the Republican National Committee is including support in its draft platform for an outright ban on abortion in all cases.
Ryan himself stoked the debate Wednesday when he was forced to emphasize anew that Romney is the nominee, brushing aside differences in their records.
"I'm proud of my pro-life record. And 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," Ryan told a Pennsylvania TV station.