By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In crafting a response to Republican congressman Todd Akin's comments on rape, President Barack Obama and his aides are following Napoleon Bonaparte's age-old advice: Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.
The White House and its Democratic allies have spotlighted Akin's remarks in their "war on women" drive against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney but have stopped short of joining a chorus of Republican leaders calling for the Missouri lawmaker to drop out of the race for the U.S. Senate.
The Obama camp has good reason to want Akin to stay on the ballot. Its strategy is to allow the firestorm to sow division in the Republican ranks and create problems for Romney just before his party's national convention in Tampa next week, when he will be formally named its nominee.
The longer the drama rages - and keeps the focus away from the economy, Obama's most vulnerable point - the more the president may benefit in a tight race for the White House.
"Akin has become the lightning rod," said Bill Schneider, a political scientist at George Mason University in Virginia. "It's a chance for the Obama campaign to draw attention to Romney's problems on women's issues, as long as they avoid the impression that they're piling on."
Offering his own variation on Napoleon's maxim, Schneider said: "It's a case of 'don't get in the way if your opponent is in the process of committing suicide'."
The backlash began after Akin, an anti-abortion conservative, claimed in a weekend television interview that victims of "legitimate rape" have a natural mechanism to avoid pregnancy.
Akin, a member of the House of Representatives who is challenging Democratic U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill in the November 6 election, has apologized.
But he insisted he will remain in the race to promote his anti-abortion beliefs, despite pressure from Romney and other top Republicans he called "the party bosses" to step aside for the good of his party. This has undercut Romney's authority as his party's standard-bearer.
"RAPE IS RAPE"
Obama called Akin's comments offensive at an impromptu news conference on Monday, saying "rape is rape."
He was then was silent on the topic until the end of a two-day campaign swing Wednesday through Ohio and Nevada. "This is an individual who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology but somehow missed science class," Obama told a late fundraiser in New York.
Obama said Akin's comments represented a "desire to go backwards instead of forwards" and to fight fights that were settled 20 or 30 years ago.
Obama's team did not address whether Akin should quit the race.
"The president leaves that, we all leave that up to the people of Missouri to make that decision," Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said aboard Air Force One.
But she seized the opportunity to sharpen the contrast between Obama and Romney on women's health issues and draw attention to part of the Republican Party platform that takes a tough stand against abortion without mentioning exceptions in cases of rape and incest.
She also pointed out that Paul Ryan, Romney's vice presidential running mate, had co-sponsored anti-abortion legislation in Congress with Akin.
"There is a real choice here. It doesn't take a profile in courage for people to step away from the comments that Todd Akin made," Psaki said.
The strategy mirrors that of McCaskill, who had been trailing Akin by 10 percentage points in recent polls but pulled into a dead heat as the news of Akin's remarks came out.
She has stressed the controversy in fundraising emails, charging Akin with pursuing an "anti-women agenda," while at the same time defending his right to stay in the race out of respect for Missouri conservatives who put him on the ballot.
With Akin regarded as damaged goods, Democrats now see improved chances for retaining control of the Senate in November, when the Republicans need to pick up four seats to secure a majority.
But analysts say there is also the chance that Akin's predicament could rally conservative and religious voters behind him on Election Day.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Doina Chiacu)