CLAYTON, Mo. — About fifteen minutes into Thursday's U.S. Senate debate, Sen. Claire McCaskill — the Democrat handed the unlikely gift of the embattled Rep. Todd Akin as an opponent — was relaxed.
"Senator, would you like a rebuttal?" the moderator asked after Republican Rep. Todd Akin had spent a few minutes attacking McCaskill and President Barack Obama.
"I don't think so," McCaskill responded cheerfully, without pause.
At what might be the final Senate debate in Missouri before Election Day, McCaskill had reason to be calm: She has been outspending Akin and out-polling him. This week, her campaign released an internal poll showing McCaskill leading Akin by 14 points.
"If she doesn't attack tonight, her numbers are good," one Missouri Republican told BuzzFeed before the debate Thursday.
She did attack, a few times, primarily in appeals to female voters on issues such as pay equity and emergency contraception that could deepen their alienation from a Republican famous for the phrase "legitimate rape." But she didn't invoke that phrase.
"Everyone has heard it, and it seemed like to go there when there were so many other topics would look like piling on," McCaskill told reporters after the debate. "I don't think [the comment] will ever be played out for women."
Akin, meanwhile, spent the debate on offense, hitting McCaskill for stances ranging from her support of the federal stimulus to votes she had made in support of the president's policies.
Throughout the debate, Akin endeavored to turn focus to reliable, Republican-friendly topics including the federal deficit and government overreach. He hit on foreign policy, too, but stumbled when he called tensions between Iran and Israel a "ticklish" issue.
But the specter of Akin's controversial remark earlier this year, that women's bodies can prevent pregnancies in the case of rape, had a palpable presence in the auditorium.
"What misconceptions do you want to clarify about yourself?" the moderator asked at one point, turning to Akin first.
The audience laughed.
"Well, thank you for that question," Akin began, but then went on to discuss the economy and health care.
Later, responding to a question about stem cell research, Akin conceded, "As some of you know, I'm pro-life, and I believe life begins at conception."
While McCaskill spoke to reporters after the debate, Akin departed. When his spokesman, Rick Tyler, appeared in his place, Missouri reporters were genuinely flummoxed; a few, angry. They demanded to know where the candidate had gone.
"It was a family decision to leave. I think it had something to do with the ball game," Tyler joked, referring to the playoff game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants that was held in St. Louis on Thursday evening at the same time as the debate.
“Where is Todd Akin right now?” one reporter shouted, unamused.
“I’m not going to say."