Washington (CNN) -- The fallout over U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's controversial comments on rape jolted Republicans nationally on Monday and threatened longer-term consequences for them, potentially reviving the "war on women" debate and possibly hurting their campaign to win control of the Senate.
Republican leaders let out a collective groan when Akin claimed in a television interview on Sunday that "legitimate rape" rarely resulted in pregnancy, saying that "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
A social conservative congressman, Akin apologized repeatedly as the political uproar intensified and sought to clarify his remarks, saying he misspoke.
Democrats skewered him nevertheless and many top Republicans called for Akin to reconsider his decision to stay in the Missouri race a week before they nominate Mitt Romney for president at their Tampa convention.
In an interview with the National Review Online, Romney said that Akin's comments on rape were "insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong."
But Democrats sensed a political opening to shift the conversation away from the sluggish economy, saying that Republicans led by Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, were pushing policies that were anti-women.
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, said Akin potentially reignited the "war on women" rhetoric that factored prominently in the political debate earlier this year and for a time put Republicans on the defensive.
"It plays into this Democratic messaging that it is not a party friendly to women," Duffy said. "As the top political story of the day it is going to be something that plays into the larger narrative that Democrats want in order to appeal to women voters."
A Republican National Committee member who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity said the issue is "is not where (Governor) Romney and his ticket want to spend their time" between now and Election Day.
President Barack Obama handily won over women voters in the 2008 election and holds an edge with that key bloc in his race with Romney, polls show. A recent Gallup survey showed Obama with an 8% lead over his Republican rival among women.
The "war on women" label stemmed in part from a fierce political fight in Washington this year over contraception coverage for employees of religiously affiliated institutions. Congress, in addition, waged a partisan fight over updates to the Violence Against Women Act.
The Romney campaign has adopted a message that Democrats are the ones waging a "war on women." For instance, Romney has accused the Obama's administration of failing working women.
The potential longer-term implications of the Akin controversy also were evident in Republican calls for him to withdraw from his Senate race where incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill has been trailing in the polls.
Republicans were concerned the flare-up would permanently harm their chances of upending McCaskill in November and push them closer to taking control of the Senate.
Ron Bonjean, a veteran GOP strategist for several congressional leaders and partner at the political communications firm Singer Bonjean Strategies, said Akin's comments were "politically indefensible" and "virtually guarantees" McCaskill would be re-elected.
Outside of Missouri, Republican Sen. Scott Brown, locked in a tough fight in Massachusetts, also called for Akin to step aside.
Stuart Rothenberg editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said he has been told by Republican strategists that Akin is now "too radioactive."
"There is a lot of national pressure being put on Akin that he's not going to be able to raise Republican money and get the party behind him," Rothenberg said.
Akin said he plans to remain in the race.
Video of the Akin interview with Missouri television station KTVI was posted online by the liberal super PAC American Bridge.
CNN's Kevin Liptak, Mark Preston, and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.