Rep. Todd Akin assessing candidacy with conservatives in Florida
Tampa, Florida (CNN) — Facing pressure from Republican heavyweights in Washington to abandon his Missouri Senate bid, Rep. Todd Akin is huddling with top conservative activists in Tampa to assess whether to move forward with his embattled candidacy.
Akin spent Wednesday night and Thursday in a series of private meetings at the two-day summit of the Council For National Policy (CNP), a secretive group of conservative leaders who are meeting in Florida before next week’s Republican National Convention.
The congressman was scheduled to attend the conference long before he suggested that “legitimate rape” might not cause a woman to become pregnant, comments that have roiled the Republican Party and shifted the focus of the presidential race away from the economy and toward the divisive social issue of abortion – just days before the GOP officially nominates Mitt Romney as its standard-bearer.
Multiple sources at the CNP conference told CNN that Akin is being encouraged by leading figures in the conservative movement to remain in the Senate race even as he faces pressure from Republican establishment.
Still, several of the activists and conservative thought leaders here acknowledged the long odds he faces.
One person attending the summit said many were “spooked” by a poll out Thursday that showed Akin trailing Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill by 10 points, an unthinkable scenario just one week ago.
Asked if Akin is using the meetings to re-evaluate his decision to stay in the Missouri race, a source close to the congressman told CNN that he is “keeping an open ear to those people who are pushing him or questioning him on viability.”
But the source stressed that Akin is “getting a ton of support” from conservatives at the conference.
“He is down there to get input from a group of people who care about the things he cares about,” the Akin source told CNN.
Several of the conservatives attending the conference – most of whom refused to speak on the record because of the secretive nature of the CNP — expressed resentment at the aggressive and heavy-handed treatment of Akin by Republican leaders in Washington who have pressured him to quit the Missouri race.
At least two people at the conference named Karl Rove, a co-founder of the powerful 527 group American Crossroads, as a specific source of frustration.
Rove’s relationship with the activist wing of his party has grown frosty over the years, and sources backing Akin said they might not be rallying to his side with such vigor if Rove was not among those pushing Akin to get out.
Participants in Thursday’s meetings, though, said support for Akin was not universal among conservatives.
Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, said that while Akin misspoke and has been treated “unfairly,” he should still drop out.
“I think it splits the social conservative movement,” Land told CNN. “Some people say, ‘Look, he is our guy, we are going to stand with him. We think he can win.’ And some people are saying, ‘The odds are this is a fatal blow at least in this election cycle.’ For the good of the movement, for the good of the pro life cause, for the good of taking control of the senate for pro life forces, he needs to do what’s best for the cause and throw himself on his shield.”
Akin addressed a small dinner on Wednesday night but made no direct mention of the scandal engulfing his campaign, two sources present for that session told CNN.
The congressman, who has deep ties to the Christian right, is also hosting an invitation-only reception on Thursday evening.
But much of the discussion about the future of his campaign is taking place during face-to-face meetings with top leaders in the conservative movement attending the CNP summit, being held at a hotel near Tampa International Airport.
Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, was among those who spoke privately with Akin on Thursday.
He said Akin and his advisers were giving the race a “thorough assessment of whether or not the support is there to continue the campaign.”
Reed would not reveal details of their conversation, but made plain his sympathy for Akin: “As a general rule, I have devoted my career to encouraging men and women of faith to run for office. I don’t encourage men and women of faith not to run.”
Along with Land and Reed, the conference was attended by Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, direct mail specialist Richard Viguerie, National Rifle Association Chairman David Keene, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, pollster Kellyanne Conway, Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, Americans United For Life founder Charmaine Yoest, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and many others.
Also present were a fleet of talk radio hosts, communications consultants, school reform activists and several Republican political operatives.
Little is known about the CNP, aside from a website which describes its members as “the country’s most influential conservative leaders in business, government, politics and religion.”
New members must be vouched for and invited by current ones. One person described CNP meetings as a “media free zones” where conservatives can network and strategize freely.
Even members of the group who spoke to CNN anonymously were hesitant to discuss the group, or anything related to the Akin controversy.
“I can’t talk about what they talk about here, it’s all confidential,” said one CNP participant. “Sorry.”
When Akin was approached by a CNN camera while sitting on a veranda Thursday outside the hotel, an aide quickly moved to block the photographer’s shot.
— CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report
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