Shanleigh Brethauer was eager to support Mitt Romney at a Nevada rally, but when she heard of recent comments by a fellow Republican on pregnancy and rape, she let out a worried "Oh wow."
The 19-year-old coffee shop barista was among several women supporters at Romney's event on Wednesday in the gaming city of Reno who expressed revulsion over US senate candidate Richard Mourdock's controversial gaffe.
The anti-abortion conservative from Indiana found himself – and by extension his fellow Republican Romney, who backs him for the senate – in hot water when he said in a debate that "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape … it is something that God intended to happen."
Brethauer, who made the 45-minute drive from Carson City to Reno to see Romney, said that while she is determined to give Romney her first-ever presidential vote on November 6, the outrage over Mourdock is valid.
"I could see how it could hurt him," she said, referring to the impact of Mourdock's words on Romney's bid to unseat President Barack Obama.
"That actually really could," she said, as the prospect of a Democratic ad blitz highlighting the remarks sank in. "Oh wow. I just thought about it."
Undecided voter Courtney Kelly said it was "pretty upsetting" to hear the rape comments.
"I grew up Christian, and I mean, God doesn't intend for those things to happen," said Kelly, a 24-year-old bank branch manager, adding that she was pleased that the campaign had distanced Romney from the remarks.
Romney, however, has not dropped his support for Mourdock, for whom he taped a campaign ad recently.
Kelly was unequivocal about whether Mourdock could hurt Romney's chances: "From a women's standpoint, absolutely."
Nevada is one of a handful of toss-up states, including Florida, Ohio and Virginia, where small numbers of wavering voters could decide the election.
Romney would prefer that battleground voters zero in on the sluggish US economy in the closing days of the race, rather than the highly-charged issue of abortion.
Women comprise about 53% of the electorate, so with just 12 days to go before Americans vote in an election that by all accounts is going down to the wire, Obama and Romney are courting female voters.
Romney tells crowds that four years of Obama have plunged millions of women into poverty and slashed average household income, while the Democratic incumbent warns that Romney would set back women's rights by decades.
Romney is opposed to abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the mother's life, and has vowed to serve as a "pro-life president" even as he has tacked to the centre on other prominent issues.
He raised conservatives' eyebrows this month when he said he did not envision supporting any new legislation to limit abortion rights.
That did not stop women from protesting outside the Reno rally, including one who held a placard that read: "I have binders full of reasons not to vote for Romney!" referring to an awkward line from one of the debates.
Protesting next to her was Pam duPre, head of the Democratic Party of Nevada's Washoe County, who recalled how another Senate candidate, Todd Akin of Missouri, sparked controversy in August when he said a woman's body could prevent conception in cases of "legitimate rape".
Those remarks brought an avalanche of condemnation from both political parties and from Romney himself. Akin apologised, but refused Republican demands to quit the race.
"It's amazing how many conservative Republican candidates, whom Mitt Romney supports, express such outrageous views," DuPre said. "It's as if violent crimes against women are OK."
Bertha Thornburg (67), who has been dealing black jack at Nevada casinos for nearly 40 years, said she is pro-life and will vote for Romney, but took offense to Mourdock's remarks.
"We're realists," Thornburg said about her and friends, Republican and Democrat, who oppose abortion yet do not want it criminalised.
"I believe that if it's a rape, you have a right to get an abortion," she said.
While women at the rally said Mourdock used poor judgment, it was a Democrat, Nicole Bridges, who dismissed him as having little or no impact on the presidential race.
"Everyone has their own opinions," shrugged the 24-year-old. "But he's a schmuck for saying that." – AFP