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By Kevin Murphy

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, who was shunned by fellow Republicans last month over controversial remarks about rape, brushed off criticism on Friday that he was being sexist when he said his opponent Claire McCaskill wasn't "ladylike" in their recent debate.

Akin, a six-term congressman, created an uproar last month for saying that women have a biological defense against pregnancies from "legitimate rape." He had been running strong in Missouri, a key target for Republicans who need a net gain of four seats in November's election to ensure a Senate majority.

Akin came under some fire from Democrats on Thursday for remarking that McCaskill, the Democratic incumbent in the race, was more "ladylike" in her debates six years ago with Republican opponent Jim Talent.

At a Kansas City press conference Friday, Akin was asked if he was suggesting that women should not be as assertive as men in debates. "Not at all," he said, adding that debaters needed to be assertive.

He likened the term "lady" to the term "gentleman."

"We have a couple of words in the English language - one is a gentleman and one is a lady," Akin said. "They are pretty self-explanatory and I was using them just as the English language uses those terms."

Senior Republicans urged Akin to quit the race last month after his comments on rape distracted attention from the party's nomination of Mitt Romney for U.S. president and drew criticism from President Barack Obama. But Akin has refused to back out and earlier this week won the support of a conservative group that pledged over $290,000 to his campaign.

In another sign the Republicans may be easing up on Akin, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview with CBS News on Thursday that the RNC was backing every Republican candidate for Senate, including Akin.

On another issue, Akin acknowledged upon questioning Friday that he was arrested during an abortion protest about 25 years ago. "I was involved in some peaceful protests," he said. "As I make very clear, I don't apologize for being pro-life and I stand for certain things I believe in."

(Editing by James B. Kelleher and Claudia Parsons)

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