An Indiana GOP Senate candidate’s assertion that pregnancy resulting from rape is “something God intended to happen” ignited a controversy that spilled into the presidential race Wednesday as Democrats renewed the charge that Republicans are waging a “war on women.”

Absent his assertion of divine intent, the comments by Richard Mourdock explaining his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest were not that different from those made by others who believe in an absolute ban.

What kindled his words into a controversy was the political context of an election year in which gender-related issues have assumed a prominent place — even as most voters say their prime concern is the economy.

The timing also added fuel. Mourdock made his remarks in a debate that came just one day after his campaign began broadcasting a television spot featuring an endorsement by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Mourdock is the only Senate candidate for whom Romney made such an advertisement.

In a year when both parties are scrambling for women’s votes, Democrats have portrayed the GOP as a party that is captive to its extremists, particularly on issues such as contraception and abortion.

Republicans, meanwhile, have tried to send reassuring signals that social issues will take a back seat to economic ones if they recapture the White House and control of Capitol Hill.

Romney, who supports allowing abortion in cases of rape and incest, distanced himself from Mourdock’s comments. But his campaign did not ask Mourdock’s campaign to quit running the ad in which the former Massachusetts governor praises the U.S. Senate nominee.

“Governor Romney disagrees with Richard Mourdock, and Mr. Mourdock’s comments do not reflect Governor Romney’s views,” said Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “We disagree on the policy regarding exceptions for rape and incest but still support him.”

Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, has views that are similar to Mourdock’s; he supports banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest. But the Wisconsin congressman has said that whatever his own beliefs, the policies of a Romney administration would be those of the presidential nominee.

Only 1 percent of all abortions are performed on victims of rape, and fewer than half that many result from incest, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy organization whose statistics are relied upon by both sides in the abortion debate.

That an exclusion with so little practical effect has assumed such an oversize political one goes back to the 1976 passage of the Hyde Amendment. It banned federal funding of abortion, which at that time was provided to poor women under the Medicaid program.

The exceptions were a compromise rooted not in science or theology but in politics.

The federal funding ban originally passed with an exclusion only when the woman’s life was threatened. Rape and incest exceptions were added in the late 1970s, along with an exclusion if the woman’s health was seriously threatened, but disappeared again in 1981. The rape and incest language returned in 1993 after more abortion rights supporters were elected to Congress.

“Depending on who’s in power, these exceptions have come and gone,” said Maya Manian, a University of San Francisco law professor who researches access to reproductive health care.

President Obama’s campaign quickly pounced on Mourdock’s comment and sought to tie it to the GOP presidential nominee.

“This is an issue where Mitt Romney is starring in an ad for this [candidate], and it is perplexing that he wouldn’t demand to have that ad taken down,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki, predicting that female voters will be disturbed by the prospect that Romney and Mourdock might “have the opportunity to be partners, in the White House and the Senate.”

Obama addressed the controversy in his appearance Wednesday on “The Tonight Show,” saying “rape is rape” and “these various distinctions about rape . . . don’t make any sense to me.”

Mourdock, who defeated long-serving Sen. Richard G. Lugar in the primary and who is engaged in a tight race against Rep. Joe Donnelly (D), said Democrats were intentionally twisting the meaning of his assertion that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

After the debate, he tried to clarify it by issuing a statement: “God creates life, and that was my point. God does not want rape, and by no means was I suggesting that He does. Rape is a horrible thing, and for anyone to twist my words otherwise is absurd and sick.”

Donnelly, his opponent, also opposes abortion.

It did not appear that Mourdock’s remarks had turned him into a pariah with the GOP establishment, the way Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s did when he said in August that “legitimate rape” rarely results in pregnancy.

Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had unsuccessfully urged Akin to withdraw; after Mourdock’s statement, Cornyn issued a statement saying those who seek to misconstrue the Indiana candidate’s words are “irresponsible and ridiculous.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has campaigned for Mourdock, suggested that he could withdraw his support. “It depends on what he does,” McCain told CNN. “If he apologizes and says he misspoke and he was wrong and he asks the people to forgive him. . . . It’s when you don’t own up to it that people will not believe in you.”

Mourdock and Akin are far from the first to trip when trying to give a rationale for a position that puts them at odds with others who count themselves on the antiabortion side. In 2010, Nevada Republican Senate nominee Sharron Angle suggested that bearing children conceived by rape amounted to turning “a lemon situation into lemonade.”

The real problem, said Susan Cohen, director of government relations for the Guttmacher Institute, is that the exclusion for rape and incest is inconsistent with a belief that life begins at and should be protected from the moment of conception.

“This is a purely political and cynical compromise that only politicians subscribe to,” she added.

Philip Rucker and Alice Crites contributed to this report